Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal PeopleNORMAL 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

28 thoughts on “Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

  1. Literary Elephant

    Great review, I’m so glad you loved this one! Sally Rooney is such a fantastic author. But I can fully agree her books are hard to review!

    1. Thank you! I look forward to reading more of her works. With this one, it was just so relatable that I feel it’s inevitable for the review to get more personal and revealing, which can be uncomfortable for me, lol.

  2. I know when this book came out that folks in the media had a hard time categorizing it. There were arguments over whether it was women’s fiction or literary fiction, and the fact that people had to argue about it is something that bothers me when readers are so concerned about how literary a work is.

    “His sense of alienation among his more extroverted and monied peers . . .” This completely. When I went to Notre Dame, my tuition was waived, as were all MFA candidates’, but I was the one selling things to put a dribble of gas in my car to get to every required thing: class, guest lectures, readings, etc. I had a hole in my show, which kept creating a hole in my sock on that foot. We ate Pop Tarts for every meal for a couple of weeks, and I’m sure my pancreas hated me. When my very “woke” peers in the program wanted to party, travel, and go out all the time, they didn’t care why I couldn’t come and likely assumed I was a grump.

    1. I never heard about the literary/women’s fiction debate around this book. I wonder why books by men never get that kind of debate.

      That sounds tough. I was also on scholarship in college, but my basic needs were adequately met and I can’t imagine the sort of worrying you went through for small things like gas and proper meals that others take for granted. However, I can relate with not having the luxury to party or travel. A couple of my peers could afford to fly to Hong Kong during the weekend just to have lunch and shop, and when they talked about their vacations and exotic hobbies (like scuba-diving) I just couldn’t relate. Reading was pretty much the only hobby I could afford back then, lol.

      1. Thanks for linking. This is a fantastic read. “Comparing Rooney to say, John Banville, a writer who also won the Irish Book Award for a novel about a young romance and coming-of-age, Rooney’s characters strike me as less profound. Why? How much is it because Rooney writes about the lives of white, educated Millennial women, whereas Banville portrays white, educated Baby Boomer men, long considered a fitting subject for great books?” Lol, so true, though I find I’m lucky enough not to have read many of the latter.

      2. Ugh, I feel like the later is all we were assigned in high school. It’s also interesting that Rooney is a Millennial and writing books about her own generation in what sounds like a meaningful way, dispelling this idea that we’re all selfish know-nothings.

  3. Pingback: Book of Earth Tag: Avatar Blogger Award – TheGeekishBrunette

  4. Wow this is such a fabulously written review. I’ve been indecisive about adding this one to my TBR as I’m not sure I’d enjoy it. The way you’ve described it as ‘millennial angst’ and being ‘introspective’ has encouraged me to give this a try. Those are features I usually enjoy in books. I’m looking forward to giving it a try now 🙂 – Jen (from nen and jen)

    1. Jen, I’m glad I could convince you! I have to admit that I found the lack of quotation marks off-putting at first, so it took me two tries to get into it, but once I got past that I was hooked. I hope you’ll enjoy it! 🙂

  5. I understand finding it difficult to write about books that you’ve adored! For what it’s worth, I think you’ve really done justice to it here. I’d be interested to see how the reception to the novel varies over generations – think it is a particular favourite with us millennials 😉 I enjoyed the BBC adaptation, it’s very faithful to the book and well cast. It does get particularly difficult to watch during the latter few episodes, so be emotionally prepared!

    1. Thanks, Rose! I know, when I saw the reviews on Goodreads, the 1 or 2 star ones were mostly along the lines of “can’t relate because I’m not a millennial”, lol. Thanks for the heads-up—I’ll be bracing myself then!

  6. This is exactly how I felt about this book – what an incredible read! I would really recommend the BBC adaptation if you haven’t seen it already. It’s probably one of the best book-to-screen transitions I’ve ever seen, it’s absolutely beautiful x

  7. I really loved reading your thoughts on this book! I am currently reading it and I must admit that it took me a while to get into because of the awkward writing style with lack of direct speech but I’ve finally eased into it. I agree with you completely about the millenial angst, it’s definitely one of the highlights for me in the book as I am finding myself relating to so much of it. I’m certainly excited to see how it develops!

    1. Sorry for the late response! We’re the same—I picked it up a year ago but was put off by the lack of quotation marks and the stilted style, but this year I was finally able to get past it and I loved it!! Rooney just gives dignity to the millennial experience. I look forward to reading your review!

  8. Your review made me want to like the book more than I did, which is a big compliment to your review! I also read it in one sitting but found myself not really enjoying it. Perhaps I didn’t have the same connection? But I watched the TV adaptation and for perhaps the only time in my life I preferred it! I thought the actors’ portrayals were just sublime. Thank you for sharing your review

    1. Hi Rea, sorry for the late response! I was gone for awhile. Ah, I can also see why you might not enjoy it—I actually tried reading it last year but put it down because I was annoyed by the lack of quotation marks and what I found to be stilted prose, but I picked it up again this year and I’m so glad I gave it another chance! I could forgive the lack of quotation marks for how relatable it is. Now, your comment makes me more excited to watch the show! 🙂

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