I have a relative who always says, “yeah, but what is normal?” about various things when people say “that’s normal” or “that’s not normal.” Normalcy is, in many ways, a social construct. What is “normal” to some may not be normal to others. Sally Rooney’s Normal People brings to light what it’s like to yearn for something normal and also examines why “normal” is a loaded term. Connell and Marianne are two people who appear very different but form a very strong friendship and complicated on-again-off-again relationship.Connell is the likable but seemingly unremarkable guy in the high school popular crowd. He doesn’t say much, but he’s good at sports and people like him. Marianne, by contrast, is the “weird” girl in high school, the girl people are mean to for no reason and who keeps to herself (in large part as a way of self-preservation). Still, the two of them, together, have insane chemistry and bring out feelings neither knew they had. What starts as a secret in high school follows them into college, where the dynamic flips. Marianne becomes the one who fits in and Connell feels lost. What follows is a series of awkward encounters, missteps, baring it all and then revealing nothing, and an attempt to find a simple, normal relationship while being utterly consumed by attraction and passion for one person.
When I started this book, I thought, “ugh, here’s another book without quotation marks for seemingly no reason!” I get annoyed with quotation marks aren’t use to designate dialogue without purpose. However, as I dove into this story, I realized (1) quotation marks weren’t needed because the voices were so distinct, and (2) the lack of quotation marks allowed to story to flow in a way no other novel I’ve read recently does. It’s lyrical but raw. It feels stream of consciousness but also censored. The precise language feels jarring at first but then allows the characters to develop in an authentic way, making them feel imperfect and real.
The story of liking someone who you feel may not be right for you, or feeling like a relationship shouldn’t be so hard, but also finding it difficult to stay away from is one we all know. While this novel could easily turn cliche, it’s layered, subtle, and tackles issues that make the relationship feel doomed and destined at the same time. I watched an interview with Rooney where she said her novels track relationships and that she has difficulty imagining her characters as individuals. She knows them and creates them as units — how they are in relation to each other. I thought that little nugget was interesting because I think that is what makes this novel so compelling and addicting. Marianne and Connell have incredible chemistry, practice extreme vulnerability and intense miscommunications in single sittings, and awaken each other in both intimacy and emotion. To be brief: I couldn’t put it down.
In case my description wasn’t compelling enough, the inside flap reads:
At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school football team, while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her 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 at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And 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.
I received my copy from Book of the Month, a monthly book subscription service that I belong to, and I was convinced to choose it after Grace Atwood of The Stripe and the Bad on Paper podcast recommended it! Not to mention Stephanie Danler praised it in a recent review featured on Amazon. I seriously cannot recommend this book enough! I’m currently home before returning to Virginia, and my mom looked at me last night and goes “are you finishing that?? You just started!” It’s that good.
Up next, I’m reading Where the Crawdads Sing, which has been on my list for months and that I purchased in March (March!!), but haven’t read yet. I’m only a few pages in, but I know it’ll be a good one.
What’re you reading or hoping to start soon?