Normal Peopleby Published 16 Apr 2019
At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping 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 in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, 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.
Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.
"Normal People" Reviews
No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.
This is going to be a polarizing book. I mean, I think I liked it. And I say "liked it" in the sense that it made me very miserable. It is a quiet character study, almost a YA novel but not quite, and it is a profoundly lonely and depressing love story.
I didn't begin by liking it. Normal People follows two characters - Marianne and Connell - through adolescence and into early adulthood, and they begin by being the kind of uber-precocious teenagers who read Proust and Marx for fun. It took a while for me to settle into their story. My initial impression was that this was going to be some kind of John Green for adults, which is not something that floats my particular boat.
Without fully realizing it though, this book had crept quietly under my skin. The relationship between Marianne and Connell is angsty, sure, but it felt painfully real. They are so flawed, marred by unlikable characteristics, and yet, I could not stop caring about them.
Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.
The story is really just about the two of them and their relationship. In high school, Marianne is a smart and wealthy girl, but is socially ostracized and emotionally abused at home, whereas Connell is working class, but very popular. Connell's mum works as a cleaner for Marianne's family. They begin a secret sexual relationship that falls apart when Connell fears his friends will find out. The compelling dynamic between them drives the story-- issues of class and social status cause much conflict.
In college, the two meet again. This time, Marianne is popular, and Connell is feeling increasingly depressed. The two of them lean on each other time and again as they move through a social world filled with social expectations. There's a bit of a When Harry Met Sally vibe, except that this book is more soul-destroying.
Nothing had meant more to Rob than the approval of others; to be thought well of, to be a person of status. He would have betrayed any confidence, any kindness, for the promise of social acceptance.
There's clear criticism of our constant need to impress and perform for others in a world that grows ever more connected. Much of the tragedy that befalls Marianne and Connell is caused by other people, peer pressure and social expectations. It is very sad to think that someone might give up who they love the most because they can't deal with how it makes them look to others.
The pair's inability to adequately communicate is frustrating but feels realistic. I was on the verge of tearing my hair out at all the things left unsaid in this book, but I think it was a good kind of frustration. The kind that comes from caring too much.
I feel like there are any number of reasons I could have hated Normal People, but I didn’t. I actually kinda loved it. It's a weird, awkward, depressing novel about a connection formed between two very different people who find exactly what they need - and perhaps a lot that they don't - in each other.
CW: sexual assault; domestic abuse; drug use; casual racism (called out); depression; anxiety; suicide & suicidal ideation.
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Goddamit Sally Rooney and now I'm crying.
On the second page of Sally Rooney’s universally acclaimed, Booker- longlisted novel is the following paragraph:
‘He puts his hands in his pockets and suppresses an irritable sigh, but suppresses it with an audible intake of breath, so that it still sounds like a sigh.’
I get the hand in the pockets bit, but how the hell does the rest of it work? A sigh is an exhalation and I have no idea how any attempt to suppress a sigh by inhaling could possibly sound like one. I’ve tried hard to imagine it, but no luck. I’ve tried even harder to do it, but even less luck. In fact, in an effort to understand this twaddle I have tried it so often that I have come close on several occasions to hyperventilating and passing out.
What have those Faber editors been doing? Maybe they have no problem with it because they are all so much cleverer than me and know how to read properly. Or maybe they also tried to do it and actually did pass out, which might explain why they have failed to apply the editorial pencil with any intelligence in the 264 pages that follow.
The more likely explanation, of course, is that the problem is mine – and I offer the following gems from Normal People on that understanding…
• ‘He looks down into his lap, and exhales quickly, almost like a cough’.
It’s hyperventilation time again. I’ve imagined it and I’ve tried it, but I still don’t get it.
• ‘He can’t even visually imagine himself as a lawyer, wearing a tie and so on..’
Do we really need that ‘visually’?
• ‘It’s true she is Connell’s type, maybe even the originary model of the type:’
Originary? What does that mean? Am I the only one who had to look it up? (It’s not in Chambers, by the way, so you’ll need the OED)
• ‘Peggy, watching, took a performatively large mouthful of Cointreau…’
Can anyone explain what ‘performatively large’ actually means?
• ‘Enraged now, Alan wrenched her back from the sink by her upper arm, and, seemingly spontaneously, spat at her.’
I could go on. It’s not often that I feel the need to read with a pencil in my hand but Normal People drove me to it, and my copy is now covered with question marks and annotations. I retired from teaching last year but reading Sally Rooney’s feted novel felt like I was marking again - in this case marking the work of a precocious, but overindulged, talent.
In 'Normal People' alternating points of view are combined with an inconsistent and confusing authorial presence, voices are often difficult to differentiate in an ineffectual free indirect style, the comma splices (Ferrante this isn’t) and the unpunctuated dialogue, far from creating an impressionistic flow, suggest a lack of precision, and the prose shifts from past to present for no apparent reason and even within paragraphs, creating a chronological blur. In short, it's a bit of a mess.
If I cared about the characters or cared about the story, these things would not matter quite so much but on the few occasions when I saw through the writerly mess I found it difficult to care about them at all.
The novel, though, has been so well received that its very reception has become a news story. ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’: critics unite to praise 27 year-old novelist’ was the headline in last Saturday’s Guardian.
So the problem is clearly mine.
Maybe I've read a different book from the one everyone is raving about. Maybe I've read the same book but don't know how to read properly. Or it could be that I'm the child's voice at the back of the crowd politely suggesting that the emperor might not be wearing any clothes.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. How thrilling that the author hailed as "Salinger for the Snapchat generation" is Irish, and from my own province of Connacht at that. There are moments in this novel that would certainly back up such a bold claim. But I believe that she is a writer still honing her craft. Not quite the finished article just yet, but with all the potential to become a literary heavyweight.
In the beginning we meet Connell and Marianne, two young people growing up the west of Ireland. Marianne comes from a wealthy family and Connell's mother Lorraine is a cleaner in their lavish house. At the start of the book, the pair are in their final year at school - Connell is a popular sports star while Marianne is a social outcast. They are close despite operating in completely different circles. Roles are reversed once they move to Dublin for college - Marianne falls in with a group who appreciate her wit and intelligence, and a taciturn Connell finds it difficult to make friends. The story follows their on-off relationship over the years - they go from being pals, to more than that, to who knows? They are a huge part of one another's lives, no matter what their romantic status.
Rooney is strong on the intricacies of relationships - how the influence of one person can shape another person's whole life, and how little misunderstandings can snowball into major heartbreak. At one point Connell discovers that becoming part of a couple can even validate one's existence: "To be known as her boyfriend plants him firmly in the social world, establishes him as an acceptable person, someone with a particular status, someone whose conversational silences are thoughtful rather than socially awkward." She is also extremely perceptive about the journey from adolescence into adulthood, that point in your life where you fly the nest to take on the world and finally meet people with the same interests as yours - confident, excited and apprehensive all at once: "They were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read."
However, there were a couple of things that bugged me. For one, Marianne's family despise her, yet we are given no reason for this. The actions of her brother Alan, in particular, become more ridiculous as the story goes on, and without proper context they just feel ludicrous. And I'm afraid I found the dialogue quite flat at times. For two people like Marianne and Connell, who know each other so well, I kept thinking, is this how they would really speak to each other? Their exchanges are so earnest and dry. For example, there's one part where they are about to have sex after missing one other for so long, and the atmosphere is charged. They kiss. Marianne says that she wants this so much, and Connell goes: "It's really nice to hear you say that. I'm going to switch the TV off, if that's OK." The description of the scene makes it sound passionate but the conversation dulls its effect.
Maybe I'm nitpicking. There were many aspects of the book I really admired. It's just that when I see publications like The Guardian declaring Normal People a "future classic", I expect a bit more from it. I do think that Sally Rooney is massively talented, and her gifts of observation and empathy will serve her very well in her career. She may have the literary world at her feet right now, but I reckon her best work is yet to come.
I have to admit I wasn't taken with Rooney's debut Conversations with Friends but I tried to read her second book with an open mind. The writing was good and some of the themes were interesting but I was rather bored by the selfabsorbed, cliché-characters: women who just want to 'get the man' and who always question their self-worth after a break-up, and men who are behaving as if they come straight out of a 'boys-will-be-boys'-movie. So 1950ies. And the ending is just plain cheesy.
2.5* (mainly because the writing was good).
And not much has changed after the re-read in January 2019: Nope, I still don't get the hype...