Book Review: Normal People
This little gem of a novel by Sally Rooney definitely made me feel my age (old). It is a love story of two millennials from the same backwater town in Ireland, who are clearly meant to be together, but can’t admit it to themselves or to each other. As I am sure Rooney intends, I kept slapping my forehead every time they failed to take the leap of faith for each other as the relationship evolves from their last year of high school through their last year at Trinity College in Dublin. It is testament to Rooney’s lovely writing and her skills as a storyteller that I wanted to persevere with them.
Rooney knows this territory well; she is a young author, born in 1991 in the west of Ireland. Her previous novel, Conversations With Friends (2017) was hailed in the Anglo-Irish press, and Normal People is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
In high school, Marianne is the rich, angry, and awkward outcast; her family (minus her dead dad, who might have been abusive) is mean and unhappy. Connell is the illegitimate son of Marianne’s family house cleaner; unlike Marianne, he is in the “cool” group at school. He is tall, lanky, good-looking, popular, athletic. Both Marianne and Connell are brilliant students; both feel like outsiders.
They get to know each other because Connell comes to pick up his mom at Marianne’s house after school twice a week. Slowly, their relationship evolves into a “friends with benefits” thing that Connell tries to hide from everyone at school, and Marianne willingly agrees to keep secret. As the reader, you know there is something real between them, and you hurt for them both.
The plot continues in linear fashion. Each chapter starts with a date (January 2011) and continues the story of the relationship. We skip forward sometimes for a few days or weeks, or sometimes for a months.
The tables turn on the relationship when they both end up at Trinity College (after their first major falling out). Marianne is comfortable with the well-to-do social set, has good friends, and appears happy. Connell feels more like the social outcast. They both drift in and out of other relationships, but always come back to each other, particularly at crisis points in their lives.
I couldn’t help but root for them. For different reasons, neither of them feels worthy of true love. The end of the book will leave you hopeful about each of them as individuals and about their future together.