Normal People by Sally Rooney
Published by Hogarth
Publication date: April 16, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Coming-of-age, Fiction, Literary
Marianne and Connell live very different lives in the same small Irish town. She has a wealthy family and a big house, but is an outcast at their school, while he is everyone’s best friend, a natural athlete, a good student. His mother cleans her family’s mansion, so he comes over every afternoon to pick her up. On one of these afternoons they talk. This innocuous circumstance is the beginning of what is one of the most complex, tender, and painful relationships I’ve ever read. Sally Rooney chronicles it with soulful, probing grace in Normal People.
At first, it’s just a connection between two lost teenagers. Marianne is lost on the surface because she’s too smart, too unwilling to play the games that might make her popular, and Connell is lost in the feeling he is two people, one who has to do the things people expect of him and the other who wants a completely different life. But because they’re teenagers things soon progress to a sexual relationship, one Connell doesn’t want anyone to know about. He finds that
With Marianne it was different, because everything was between them only, even awkward or difficult things. He could do or say anything he wanted with her and no one would ever find out.
When they are both accepted at Trinity College in Dublin their dynamic shifts. Now it is Marianne who fits in, with her wealth and urban attitude and Connell who is there on scholarship and is mocked for his accent. She has a boyfriend while he’s unpopular and their paths don’t often cross.
Through four years of their lives they come together and pull apart as school ends and they move on to the rest of their lives. They explore relationships with others and even venture into time together as a couple. It is in one of these moments that Connell finally learns the thorn in Marianne’s heart. All her life, she has been shown that men are allowed to hurt her—if not physically then emotionally. She is bad, a disappointment, a waste of flesh. It’s no surprise then that by the time she reaches adulthood she is a masochist, capable of experiencing love only through pain. Often, as I was reading her perspective I was vividly reminded of another damaged character who made my heart hurt with their pain—Jude in A Little Life. While Rooney doesn’t write of physical abuse at the levels experienced by Jude, the pathos is no less.
It gives Marianne a window onto real happiness, though a window she cannot open herself or ever climb through.
You can have the ability to see into the quietest, most hidden parts of the human psyche, but without the ability to translate those emotions into words, it’s a wasted gift. Rooney is the rare breed who achieves this alchemy. For much of Normal People it works, but if Rooney is a spinner of feelings into words, she doesn’t imbue either Connell or Marianne with the same gift. At least not in a way they can communicate with each other. There are points of frustration when much is said on the page, but left unsaid between the characters. They seem so close, but for as often as they connect, they then miss and the empty space between them expands. This dynamic fills the novel with a pervasive sense of yearning and gives it an elegiac feel.
It’s not often I can say I loved a book when I didn’t like its ending. The two usually go hand in hand, but in Normal People, I accept Rooney’s choice, possibly because she writes with such depth and assurance I can’t disagree. I don’t remember the last time I highlighted so many sentences and paragraphs. Rooney chooses and uses her words with a quiet elegance that infiltrates the mind and the heart in a way that lingers even after the novel’s last page.