Normal Peopleby Published 28 Aug 2018
|Publisher||Faber & Faber|
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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I genuinely have no idea how to rate this. I LOVED the first half, felt lukewarm towards the middle, and then hated the ending????? The characters had so much chemistry but they refused to communicate I just 😤
TW: sexual assault, domestic violence, depression, suicide
Oooof. Alright - a disclaimer before I start. Normal People by Sally Rooney is superb. I’m gonna gush about this one (warning to those in the splash zone!) and I honestly feel that the less you know about it, the better the experience will be for you. So, to those of you who’re thinking of reading it, don’t bother with any reviews about the book - just read it. It’s a contemporary story about a boy and a girl who fall in love. That’s all you need to know. And when you’re done, come back and we can hi-five each other in joy over its excellence!
Why did I begin with “Oooof”? Because I genuinely feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. Repeatedly. This is such an emotionally exhausting and draining read! Sally Rooney’s created a remarkably compelling pair of characters in Marianne and Connell and I felt their love so intensely it was like I was experiencing it with them.
Which makes it sound like a romance, and it has some of those elements, but if it’s anything it’s a classic Bildungsroman (just a fancy word for “coming of age” story). Marianne is the awkward loner in high school, brainy but socially isolated. Connell is the good-looking popular boy, inexplicably drawn to Marianne - star football player falls for nerdy girl. The two begin seeing each other secretly - god, it sounds sooo fucking cheesy doesn’t it? I promise you it’s anything but. From there it’s a rollercoaster of emotions as the characters grow and develop. I loved it pure and simple.
Here are some critiques to anyone who didn’t enjoy the book: Marianne’s brother Alan is a laughably one-dimensional villain. There’s no plot (which is very typical of this type of story) - the story just starts and then ends. The occasional phrase feels hammy and clichéd (stuff like “so few people have what we have”). Connell is written as this genius but he does some super-dumb things - and if he is so brilliant, would he care so much what others thought of him? Also, given how unbelievably connected Connell and Marianne are on every conceivable level, the number of times they misunderstand one another seemingly purely for dramatic purposes could be seen as contrived as fuuuuck.
And, though I know almost nothing about Rooney, it feels like a very autobiographical novel - most young writers tend to write about themselves to start with, after all. She’s a young Irish woman who went to Trinity College, Dublin, on a scholarship, like Marianne, and the novel ends with the characters in their mid-20s, which is the same age I suspect Rooney was when she stopped writing this (she’s now 27 years old). In that regard you could say it’s somewhat unimaginative.
Listen: none of that matters. I noticed those things and I didn’t care. Because it’s so well-written, so damn compelling, so enthralling and honest and… real. If I gave this anything less than the highest possible rating, I’d be lying about how much I enjoyed this book.
It’s also impressive that she didn’t shy away from writing the sex scenes given how tricky they are to write with most writers publicly embarrassing themselves. She’s such a confident and skilful writer – already, at such a young age! - that she pulls them off admirably and, yes, sensuously.
If you’ve ever heard someone trying to convince someone else to start reading books, one of the points they’ll make is that you get to live lives you never would. Most books do this on a superficial level but Normal People actually achieves this viscerally. This is one of those books that effortlessly draws you into it and lets you experience the intensity of Marianne and Connell’s heart-achingly, tender, complex relationship in a totally believable way - it’s powerful stuff. Truly, I felt more and more anxious as the book went on until I was actually dreading the end - this novel turned me into a wreck!
The Guardian review, which drew me to this book in the first place, mentioned something like “this is a novel for and about the Millennial generation” but it’s not really. In a literal sense the characters and author are Millennials but besides that there’s nothing about this book that makes it distinct for this specific time - it could easily be set at any point in the last 50 years and still work perfectly.
I’m not really sure what the book was trying to say - if anything - but it’s left a deep impression regardless. Maybe that’s it - the whole labelling of generations is a fruitless exercise in misnomers, we’re all the same and love is a complicated, weird thing for all of us? Maybe it’s trying to define what “normal” is for this generation but isn’t that something every generation goes through? And I’m not exactly sure what conclusions Rooney comes up with could be uniquely ascribed to Millennials.
I’ll leave it with this because I’m spent: Normal People isn’t just the best novel of the year, or even the best novel of the last few years, but it’s one of the best I’ve ever read in my life. Maybe I’m just a sucker for coming of age stories? W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage told a similar type of story that left me just as devastated - but in a good way (sort of). A beautiful powerhouse of quiet, extraordinarily potent sensations that indelibly captures an important part of the human experience, Normal People has made me an instant fan of Sally Rooney’s - and thank you for writing it.
Now shortlisted for the British Book Awards fiction book of the year.
Recently longlisted for the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize to add to the Women's Prize and the Dylan Thomas prize.
Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker – and the only book published after the longlist was announced, and so the last I came to read (a month and 2 days after the announcement).
While not shortlisted for that prize - the book is now (and not surprisingly) starting to sweep other awards: Irish Book of The Year - Best Novel. National Book Award - International Author, Waterstone's Book of the Year - Best Novel and Best Book, Costa Award - Best Novel.
I have little doubt that the author will be the one on the Booker longlist that we will hear most of in the years ahead and that this book (probably alone of the longlist) will be on the shelves in mainstream bookshops in say 5 years' time.
Returning to my review:
The other books on the longlist draw on wider elements: graphics and alt-right, crime genre conventions, Greek mythology and legend, immersive research into the penal system, environmental passion, free verse and film noir, dystopia, grime and urban slang, refugee crisis, steampunk and slavery, greyhounds and spying, stream of consciousness: and the reader’s view of each book depends, at least in part, on her (or his) views on how well the author has translated those aspects into language
This book is though little more than an internally focused, but two sided tale of millennial student friendship and love – and hence to a very large extent stands or falls on the readers view of the author’s writing and her characterisation of the thoughts and motivations of the two protagonists.
In my view the author largely succeeds and, much to my surprise, this is one of my favourite books on the longlist.
Connell and Marianne attend the same school – Connell quietly popular, Marianne widely shunned for her perceived eccentricity – but the two have two links: both are intellectual and Connell’s single mother cleans for Marianne’s widowed mother. The two start a tentative sexual and covert relationship and both apply (successfully) for Trinity where their relative status is turned on its head and more in line with their social status – Connell struggling with the simultaneous vacuity and confidence of his fellow students, and Marianne thriving.
The book which moves forwards in unevenly spaced chapters which are dated and title (for example) Three Months Later, chapters which are told form alternating third party viewpoints and which often look back on key events since the last chapter and more particularly on the ever changing dynamic of the relationship between the two.
Connell’s relationship to literature (like the authors) is complex – struggling with the middle class attitude to literature he still desperately wants to be part of it – which even leads to the book’s ending. Connell (and the author’s) ambiguity is captured in a number of quotes:
It seems to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.
Connell couldn’t think of any reason why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant. They were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them
It was culture as class performance, literature fetished for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they made afterwards feel superior to the undereducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about
Key themes examined in the book include:
Class dynamics and social privilege;
Masculinity and feminity – and the privileges and burdens of each;
The aftermath of the end of the Celtic Tiger, and its economic and social effects on the millennial generation that reached adulthood after it, including their loss of faith in capitalism (having already lost faith in the church);
Power dynamics and how these can alter across different social milieu;
Fitting in and standing out – and how different people can adopt different positions over time;
Intimacy and independence ;
Self-image and its interaction with abusive relationships and with depression.
I described Sally Rooney’s last book – Conversations With Friends – as “an interesting debut by a young author writing with a fresh new voice about a young character experiencing a very old story (a woman having an affair with an older married man)”.
Despite its many differences, this book is again simply a young author writing with a fresh new voice about (in this case) two young characters experiencing an even older story – how does friendship translate into love and how can you really know the mind of someone else. Albeit one with a dark undercurrent.
Jane Austen for the millennial generation.
One night the library started closing just as he reached the passage in Emma where it seems like Mr Knightly is going to marry Harriet, and he had to close the book and walk home in a state of strange emotional agitation …………. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is – literature moves him.
And there it is – this book moved me.
Goddamit Sally Rooney and now I'm crying.