Normal People: A Novel, By Sally Rooney
Publication: Hogarth; April 16, 2019
About the book:
At school, Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school football team, while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers—one they are determined to conceal.
A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney, is one of those buzz books that everyone has been discussing. I downloaded this novel in October, it published in April, but I have just now gotten around to reading it. Why did I wait so long? Do you know those books that leave you thinking about the characters and the messages within the story long after you finish reading? Normal People is that book.
Marianne and Connell live in Carricklea (County Sligo) in Ireland, go to school together, but don’t technically know one another. Marianne is brilliant, has a wealthy family, is considered somewhat of an ugly-ducking, and spends her days at school socializing with no one, but rather, sitting at lunch with her nose in a book and off in her own world. Connell is popular, an athlete, was raised by a single mother who happens to work cleaning Marianne’s house, and although he hangs out with some frequently mean and offensive people, he seems to be more philosophical and intelligent than them. One day while picking up his mother at Marianne’s home, Connell and Marianne engage in more conversation than normal, going beyond their typical sparring about who is smarter and gets the best grades. Their conversations become more frequent when he arrives to pick up us his mother.
You know you were saying the other day that you like me, he said. In the kitchen you said it, when we were talking about school. Yeah. Did you mean it like as a friend or what?
No, not just as a friend, she said. Oh, okay. I was wondering. He sat there, nodding to himself. I’m kind of confused about what I feel, he added. I think it would be awkward in school if anything happened with us.
No one would have to know.
And there is the beginning of a relationship that, over the next four years, is one part friendship, one part love story, one part sexual relationship, and a lot of miscommunication. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved and adored every moment of this novel, but oh my, what a shining example of the importance of open and honest communication. The incredible pull that Marianne and Connell have towards one another is evident throughout the novel, however, neither is ever quite able to put their hearts on the line and truly say what they mean or how they are feeling, resulting in so many missed opportunities at happiness. Initially, I was frustrated with the third person omniscient POV just because I prefer the first person POV. Then there was the flat, short, choppy dialogue as a whole in this novel, not just between Marianne and Connell. I wanted to scream at the characters at times to complete an entire thought using more than two or three words! But then I realized that it could partly be a regional thing that I am not accustomed to or could just be Rooney’s writing style. The best thing I can compare to is a show that was on when I was in middle school called Degrassi Junior High. I mean the first one that started in the late ’80s (I’m showing my age here.) The show was set in Canada and I can remember watching it thinking how short and choppy their sentences were. But then I also remembered thinking that if those teenagers heard our dialogue, they would probably wonder if we ever shut-up or just talked forever.
While Normal People is full of political and philosophical themes regarding post-crash Ireland and social class, one of the huge themes of the novel surrounds Marianne’s poor self-concept and her tendency to accept and crave abuse. Not only did Marianne tolerate and seek-out abuse in romantic relationships, but she also tolerated long-term emotional and physical abuse within her family. This made me wonder several times if Connell was “too nice” for her. He certainly did several emotionally hurtful things to her over the years, but was he too tender and respectful for the majority of their relationship to hold her interest?
She lies on her front and presses her face into the mattress, and he touches the back of her thigh with his hand. Her body is just an item of property, and though it has been handed around and misused in various ways, it has somehow always belonged to him, and she feels like returning it to him now.
Connell, as well as other characters also battle depression and other mental health issues, but the bulk of major events within the novel surround Marianne and her unhealthy outlook on relationships. As far as Marianne and Connell, their relationship is based on love, sex, rescuing one another, and miscommunication. That may sound odd or even a bit depressing, but I was still completely engrossed in their story from the first word until the last.
I’ve read reviews where people are infuriated about the ending and I’ve read reviews where people love the ending. For lack of better words, I am fine with it. My reasoning for that statement is, I’m not really sure what the future holds for Marianne and Connell at the ending. Maybe that was Rooney’s intentions all along, for the reader to formulate their own opinion about them. Or, perhaps the author had a clear ending in mind for this couple and we have to read between the lines to figure out what it is? Regardless, the ending is not the meat of this novel and is not what I will be thinking about for a very long time. It’s everything that happened before the ending.
Normal People is a blend of literary fiction and coming of age fiction, so keep that in mind while reading. It serves as both warnings and reminders of how damn hard it is growing up and trying to find your place in the world. There is sex, romance, laughter, and tears that is so raw it is almost uncomfortable at times. While reading, you may find yourself relating to the characters or you could celebrate the fact that things were so much easier for in young adulthood. Regardless, this is an outstanding novel that will stay with you long after you finish it. This is easily going into my top ten favorite books ever read.
*Thanks to NetGalley and Hogarth for providing this copy in exchange for my honest review.