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
Uncomfortable and Provocative
In Normal People, Sally Rooney tells the story of two deeply damaged people who develop an intense relationship that transcends the norms.
Connell and Marianne start a secret romantic relationship while in high school. Connell is the popular jock who secretly cares what everyone thinks about him. Marianne is the school pariah--the girl who people create myths about. While they both feel alone and misunderstood, together they understand not only one another, but also themselves. When they start University, their roles reverse. No longer forced to keep their relationship a secret, they have other barriers to face--many which are dark and daunting. Both begin to spiral. It is only when they are together that they can face themselves and the world around them.
Normal People could have been a whiny, angsty read about two very self-absorbed 18-to twenty-somethings, but the narrative structure and Rooney's writing elevates the characters and story to another level.
The narrative is told through the inner workings of Connell and Marianne’s minds. The reader is privy to their issues and disturbing thoughts. They are awkward and flawed characters, which made them feel very real. I was hoping for more growth, but the glimpse of hope at the end helped me realize that Connell and Marianne were ready to face the future. This is a very dark and disturbing read with some light at the end. While I came to care about Connell and Marianne’s characters, I wouldn’t want to read this again!
“I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.”
Sally Rooney is the real deal
Normal People has been lavished with praise from critics, longlisted for the Man Booker prize and is apparently being adapted for television by the BBC. And it only came out last week!
So much attention will no doubt attract quite a few readers who would not ordinarily touch this subject matter with a barge pole. Because this book:
A) Is about young people
B) Is a love story (but not a 'romance')
C) Contains a fair bit of sex (which is crucial to the story, btw, and is not graphic)
All of which (possibly also the fact that the author is a 27-year-old woman) means that Normal People will inevitably be dismissed by some as frivolous. It isn’t. This is a confident, accomplished and serious work.
Of Rooney’s debut, Conversations with Friends, I said in my review it ‘occasionally scrapes close to the bone’. Well, Normal People cuts to the core.
Normal People is not out to inspire, instruct, entertain or talk down to anyone, which makes it something of a refreshing anomaly in current fiction about young people. It is a novel (for anyone, young or old) that simply presents the truth of youthful experiences without the filters of nostalgia or sentimentality. It invites you to inhabit the psyche of someone else – two someone elses: Connell and Marianne – to identify with them and to feel their pain and turmoil. For the reader who connects to that, it is wracking.
The story focuses only on the pivotal moments for these two characters, jumping forward three weeks, six months, or five minutes, as needed, to excise all the uneventful bits of life and leave us with the most emotionally intense supercut possible. It follows them from high school in a small town, through their years at university in Dublin, as the dynamic between them shifts with their surroundings and social circle. They’re not officially 'together' the whole time, or even most of the time, but they always figure in each other’s lives in a significant way.
Sally Rooney writes with such precision that this all feels painfully true. She conjures the tension and emotion in a scene just from the way someone wrings out a dish sponge; she conveys the full weight of feeling from a look or a shrug. In Rooney’s imagining, Connell and Marianne as separate entities are less important than the interplay between them – their relationship dynamic and the influence each of them has on shaping the other, that’s the real stuff of this book:
"How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. 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."
There’s irony here, and self-conscious posturing (though not nearly as much as in CWF), but earnestness, truth and kindness as well. In addition to the central relationship are issues of class and intellectual integrity. It's a particularly astute look at the rebuild of self that teenagers undergo in the transition from school to uni, how it allows some to thrive while others stumble, and in some ways is just an illusion after all.
So there’s hype and there’s backlash to the hype, and Normal People is sure to resonate powerfully with some readers and not at all for others. If you like a minutely observed novel about people and feelings that isn’t mawkish, I'd say give it a go.
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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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.
Man booker prize long list nominee and Costa book awards nominee This is a book that has many admirers and sadly it didn't work for me and while I would love to agree with all the judges on this one I only struggled to the end because it was a bookclub read. It is difficult to go against the grain on a book that is nominated for so many awards. So as always you need to judge for yourself because books fit people differently
Quite simply this book didn't Fit Me. I really have no interest in reading about 18-20 something year college kid's on/off sexual relationships where they seem to only exist in their own little complex bubble and this book felt like a bubble. It is described as "exquisite love stroy" which I honestly found nothing exquisite or no love in this one.
The characters of Connell and Marianne were dislikable and boring and the on / off, will they wont they "relationship" became repetitive reading. The only character which I liked and felt any connection with in the novel was Lorraine.
Perhaps this is more suited for a younger audience where they connect with the college scene or for readers who like complex relationship stories but for me this was a struggle from start to finish.