Normal People | Sally Rooney
Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so that he could copy by example.
Normal People follows two Irish teenagers, Marianne and Connell, who belong to different worlds. Marianne is the rich, intelligent outcast who no one speaks to and Connell, whose mother cleans Marianne’s home, is the nice, popular boy who has turned out well despite being raised by a single mother. The book begins with a conversation between the pair that leads to a relationship that is many things – one of friendship, one of lust, one of love – and one they keep coming back to.
This is not a book I would normally pick up; it is a contemporary romance wrapped around a bildungsroman and pretty much none of that is my jam. But this was a birthday present and apparently if you literally put a book into my hand I will read it. Coming-of-age stories don’t usually appeal to me. They often feel like they are filled with faux-deep, philosophical thoughts. So I went into this book waiting for something profound to happen, or rather something that I could recognise other people would find profound. Instead I found a compelling if uneven read.
The book is a little flat and slow to begin with, but I found myself drawn in by the characters, keen to find out what happened next. Although I’m not sure if I ever liked the pair, I was certainly rooting for them. There’s a connection between Marianne and Connell which means keep coming back to each other and this is the thread that connects the book. It doesn’t feel like a romance story in the usual sense. You get the impression that the pair should be together but they keep fucking it up. Connell and Marianne have a sense of absolute comfortableness with each other but manage to completely miscommunicate on multiple occasions. So much of this book is about what is left unsaid and as a reader, you want to shake the characters and tell them to just talk.
Normal People is told through chapters that skips months to focus on important moments. Secondary characters are fairly two-dimensional with Marianne and Connell at the centre. The writing is fluid; the text seamlessly moves between tenses and is the connective tissue that explains how the characters have changed between chapters. Stories told in third-person narrative tend to grate on me but the mixture of tenses meant it managed to hold my attention. The narrative voice however was a confusing one. It was never clear whether the characterisation on a page belonged to Connell, Marianne or to the authorial voice. There’s a complete lack of speech marks and lots of winding paragraphs. Is this something the character thinks? Is it the narrative voice? Are we supposed to question these conclusions or take them on face value?
As I was describing this book to a friend, she said ‘Oh so it’s about class’ and in many ways the story hinges on the class divide between Connell and Marianne. But Rooney never really digs into it as much as she could and this theme could have been explored more explicitly. Similarly, Marianne’s background – her abusive home life – is peppered here and there without much exploration. There are also moments where there’s a cognitive dissonance between the events of the book and the thoughts of the characters and I have no idea what Rooney is attempting to do in these moments.
He can’t help Marianne, no matter what he does. There’s something frightening about her, some huge emptiness in the pit of her being.
I think this is countered by how often the book is filled with moments that rang true. Ultimately this is what kept bringing me back to the book. Having somewhat recently gone through the same stages of life that Rooney writes about – sixth form, university, post-graduation, a lot of the book felt almost nostalgic. She captures the feeling of being that age so well. From how quickly you can go from feeling like you’re so profound and intelligent but within years, understanding that you never were and how people can change in this time too. There is a blurring of the lines between friendship and love between Marianne and Connell and this really resonated with me too. I could believe their relationship and considering it is the one focus of the novel, it is important that Rooney did it well.
Okay, I will miss her. He feels ambivalent about this, as if it’s disloyal of him, because maybe he’s enjoying how she looks or some physical aspect of her closeness. He’s not sure what friends are allowed to enjoy about each other.
This book brought me back to its pages despite all of my misgivings and I would definitely recommend giving it a read. It has some rough edges, some issues with narrative focus and nothing much actually happens in terms of plot but it has a certain pull. I think your enjoyment of it will depend entirely on personal experience. I think had I read it a few years ago, I’m not sure if it would have resonated with me so well.