Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but the similarities end there. In school, Connell is popular and well-liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation – awkward but electrifying – something life-changing begins.
Normal People is a story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find they can’t.
Sometimes the hype surrounding a particular book is so intense I find myself at a loss to know what to add to the conversation. That’s one of the reasons I have put off reviewing Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
The other is that it is a particularly polarising novel. There are the Normal People evangelists, waving the book around to anyone who will listen like you. Must. Read. This. Then on the other hand there’s those who disliked it so much they want to hurl the thing out of the window, tear it, burn it and then throw the pieces in the faces of everybody who ever told them it was worth reading.
I fall very much into the first camp.
I love Normal People.
(Yes, I have watched the BBC show. Yes, I loved it. Especially the episode about Marianne’s year in Sweden. It destroyed me.)
Normal People is a quiet, introspective novel about two people, Marianne and Connell, who love each other very much, but are, for reasons ranging from miscommunication to trauma, unable to hold onto each other. At least not in the way they’d like.
I have a theory that the people who don’t like Normal People are that weird subsection of the emotionally healthy who, like, know how to communicate their feelings? And they don’t understand how you could accidentally end a relationship because it didn’t occur to you that the person you’re in love with wouldn’t want to leave you?
(Who even are those people?)
For the rest of us, Normal People is a mirror for feelings of inadequacy (Marianne: why would anyone love me? Connell: What if people are judging me right now?), love (and heartbreak) and the self-destructive habits (Connell: isolating. Marianne: dating men who want to destroy her.) people have to move through in order to reach something like the beginnings of an emotionally healthy life.
It’s about how two people can change each other, and damage each other, and love each other.
The perspective shifts constantly between Marianne and Connell, between situations they’ve shared and the times – always temporary – where their lives have diverged away from each other. Time jumps as well as perspective, as though Rooney is sharing only snapshots of the most crucial points in these two lives. What is so remarkable is how ordinary these crucial moments are – a party at university where Connell and Marianne reconnect after many months, the sudden onset of Connor’s depression, Marianne’s study abroad year in isolation. Probably her most destructive period in the book, even it is punctuated not by melodrama but instead a fucked up sort of endurance test for Marianne to figure out how much hurt she deserves. I don’t think I have read such an empathetic and painful narrative of a person who wants to do harm to themselves before Rooney’s depiction of Marianne.
This snapshot-like structure spoke to me because often the biggest moments aren’t some epic thunderclap of realisation like I’d always thought they would be. Instead, a lot of the time, they’re only recognisable in retrospect, something I think the structure of Normal People really speaks to.
If you like books with plot, you’re probably not going to enjoy Normal People. If you like people to make emotionally healthy decisions that make total sense… yeah, you’re probably not going to like Normal People. But if you’re interested in emotionally messy, complicated people who fuck up constantly – sometimes deliberately – and all the moments of a relationship from the romantic to the truly painful and gnarly, then, yeah, Normal People might be for you.