NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney
First published by Hogarth on August 28, 2018
My Rating: ★★★★★
Argh! This is already my third attempt at this review and I still can’t find the right words to express what I felt about Normal People. I always find it harder to write about books I really love, because I either shamelessly gush about them or analyze them to death, and I can’t seem to find a proper middle ground. In this case, my first draft of this was rather fangirl-y and embarrassing, and my second sounded too cold and critical for a five-star review, so… here’s to hoping that third time’s the charm.
Normal People follows two young people, Marianne and Connell, over a period of five years, starting from when they were in high school to college. In high school, Connell is an effortlessly popular jock while Marianne is a loner and an outcast. They pretend not to know each other in school, when in fact Connell visits Marianne’s mansion regularly, since his mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family. Despite their differences, they connect over their mutual love of reading, and, of course, they fall in love.
They don’t remain together, though. At the end of high school, they have a falling-out. When they meet again in university, their situations are reversed—Marianne is now popular, and Connell struggles to stay afloat in the extroverted and highly competitive college environment, where his lack of money and connections become painfully apparent. They alternate between being lovers and friends, but they always remain in each other’s orbit as they also struggle to figure out who they are and who they want to be.
The plot is simple enough—it’s basically a romance between overeducated millennials having existential crises—but what I really loved about Normal People is the character work. Rooney captures the struggles of being a young person in great detail and with much compassion, and no thought or feeling is too small or insignificant to remark on. While reading this, there were many times when I thought, “Yes, that’s exactly what I felt” or “This is SO true”.
Rooney just gets it. Maybe it’s also because I’m the target audience for this, being a millennial experiencing existential crisis myself, but Normal People was just so relatable that reading it was a deeply emotional and vulnerable experience, especially when I was reading about Connell. His sense of alienation among his more extroverted and monied peers felt similar to my own college experience, and it felt cathartic to be seen and understood.
Aside from the brilliant character work and for her careful parsing and validation of millennial angst, I also appreciated how Rooney touches on issues of class and privilege. One of the things that comes between Connell and Marianne—at least from Connell’s point of view—is how much more well-off she is compared to him, and how his mother works for Marianne’s family. As with most people in positions of privilege, Marianne does not even grasp how much of an issue this is with him. When they both receive a scholarship, Connell reflects:
For [Marianne] the scholarship was a self-esteem boost, a happy confirmation of what she has always believed about herself anyway: that she’s special. For him the scholarship is a gigantic material fact . . . suddenly he can live in Dublin for free, and never think about rent again until he finishes college. . . . It’s like something he assumed was just a painted backdrop all his life has revealed itself to be real: foreign cities are real, and famous artworks . . . That’s money, the substance that makes the world real.
Rooney demonstrates how profoundly the material shapes the psychological and the social. With the scholarship, Connell frees up headspace to take his studies more seriously, and his social world also opens up.
Lastly, I loved how Rooney portrayed the relationship between Connell and Marianne. Despite all the smut I read, I still believe that the ideal romantic relationship is one that’s a “marriage of true minds”, and the way that Rooney describes conversations between them captures this:
When he talks to Marianne he has a sense of total privacy between them. He could tell her anything about himself, even weird things, and she would never repeat them, he knows that. Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him.
And again when they’re in college:
The conversations that follow are gratifying for Connell, often taking unexpected turns and prompting him to express ideas he had never consciously formulated before. . . . At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronization that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her.
While I loved Normal People, I’m also aware of its flaws. You’ll notice that I talked more about Connell than Marianne, because I just didn’t like her character arc as much as I liked Connell’s. Marianne is proud, charming, and confident, but also terrible with men. Aside from Connell, she seems compelled to be with men who want to “dominate” her (literally, in the BDSM sense) and hurt her, a flaw that Rooney traces back to her abusive father and brother.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people. . . . I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.
While I can understand how abuse can produce such feelings of worthlessness and helplessness in Marianne, the addition of the BDSM felt tawdry and unnecessary to me. There were also many times in the story where I felt that Marianne’s happiness and well-being were more closely tied to a relationship with Connell than vice versa, since she was just waiting to be rescued (as opposed to Connell, who really struggled with himself and came out stronger in the end). Again, Rooney links this to her experience with abuse, but I personally prefer characters to have more agency.
Despite its flaws, I still adore this book. I finished this in one sitting and cried towards the end, and that rarely happens to me. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this, because this book tends to be divisive, but if you also like reading about millennial angst and introspective books in general, then you’ll probably like this. I’m really looking forward to watching the BBC adaptation.
Have you read this, or anything else by Sally Rooney? What was your favourite book of hers? What are your thoughts on the TV adaptation? Let me know in the comments!
Find me on Goodreads! | Read on April 21, 2020