What on earth can I say about Normal People that hasn’t been said already? As I sit down to write this review, I’m chewing my lip, frantically scanning every note I took while reading it, looking for something – ANYTHING! – that sounds new or interesting. The fact is, I am (once again) probably the last person in the world to read this book. I had every intention of reading and reviewing it before the mini-series adaptation was released, but… All I can say is that I hope being perpetually late to the party is a part of the Keeping Up With The Penguins brand that you all secretly find endearing.
Normal People is millennial wunderkind Sally Rooney’s second novel, published in 2018 (her first, Conversations With Friends, was published the year prior). The story – if we can call it that – starts in 2011, with the primary characters Connell and Marianne as teenagers. They live in the same small Irish town, but that’s where the similarities between them end.
People know that Marianne lives in the white mansion with the driveway and that Connell’s mother is a cleaner, but no one knows the special relationship between these facts.Normal People (Page 2)
It’s definitely a character-driven novel; there’s not much of a plot to summarise here, beyond saying that Normal People depicts four years of Connell and Marianne’s relationship, the ebbs and tides as they graduate high-school and attend Trinity College in Dublin. It’s basically the folie à deux of young love in novel form, but let me be clear: it’s not a romance novel. For most of the four year period, Connell and Marianne are barely friends, let alone lovers, and they never seem to actually like each other all that much.
Rooney uses this relationship as something like a case study of the millennial condition, the strange fact of coming of age where you seem to have everything and nothing simultaneously. That’s why she’s been (repeatedly!) called the “Salinger of the Snapchat generation”, though I think of what she’s doing as more akin to Hemingway’s depiction of the Lost generation after the war. Setting Marianne and Connell’s lives during the post-GFC downturn is hardly an accident; it’s clear that Rooney is doing more than simply “writing what she knows”.
Normal People is remarkably subtle, though, in the way it provokes and challenges us to think about what life is like for the kids these days. When we first meet the pair, Connell is popular, handsome, intelligent, and beloved at their high-school, while Marianne is skinny, anxious, masochistic, and on-the-outer socially. They meet only because Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house, and initiate a sexual liaison only once Connell has firmly established that their encounters will remain a solemn secret, lest his good reputation be tarnished by association.
It took me a while to work out why this bugged me (I mean, besides the obvious – teenage boy Connell is a complete dick). When I finally put my finger on it, I had a lightbulb-going-on-above-the-head moment. As the “wealthy” one, surely Marianne should have been in the position of having the most social capital? But no, Rooney subverts that subconscious expectation, and in so doing shows us how class and status markers have shifted for this generation. (And I think we can read a lot of gender stuff into this point, too, but I haven’t got that far yet – Normal People is a book that requires a lot of mulling.)
Don’t worry: Normal People isn’t the tired old girl-lets-herself-get-mistreated-by-an-arsehole-forever story – Rooney subverts that expectation, too. At university, Marianne blossoms while Connell flounders, and the power dynamics of their relationship shift accordingly. BUT, hold onto your hats, this isn’t your standard best-revenge-is-living-well resolution, either! Rooney does it again! (Should we make this a Normal People drinking game?) Neither of them ever really gets it together, and their issues are never completely resolved.
In fact, over the course of the novel, it really seems that Marianne and Connell bring out the worst in each other. They are, on the face of it, quite unlikeable… but also strangely sympathetic? There’s something magnetic about their relationship that draws out the voyeur in us all. You just can’t help but keep watching on, and hoping they sort their shit out. I think that strange push-pull is attributable to Rooney’s incredible writing; it’s sparse but intimate, and her insights are more penetrating than a rectal exam. My only real complaint is she doesn’t use punctuation marks to indicate speech. (Seriously, why is this a thing? Why? Just… why? I get it, it was all Cool and Arty and Literary for a minute there, but that moment is OVER and this is a hill I am willing to die on. Hate it!)
Anyhoo! Normal People was long-listed for the 2018 Booker Prize (how it didn’t progress any further is beyond me), and it won just about every Book Of The Year award on offer. It was ranked 25th on the Guardian’s 100 Best Books Of The 21st Century (seems premature, but okay) and they called it a “future classic”.
Even though Normal People is complex and intensely felt, it’s a quick read – I powered through it (wondering the whole damn time why I’d waited so damn long). It’s anxious and intimate and passionate and intriguing, just as you’d expect from every other rave review. Actually, it reminded me a lot of the shamefully-underrated 2001 Kirsten Dunst film Crazy/Beautiful, if that’s not too niche a point-of-reference for you. So, what do you reckon? Should I go ahead and watch the Normal People mini-series adaptation? Tell me in the comments…
My favourite Amazon reviews of Normal People:
- “This book is the literary equivalent of jumping up and down on Lego in your bare feet for 5 hours.” – Keith D. Stoddart
- “Got half way through, was suddenly and overwhelmingly overcome with boredom. It chugs on and on, the characters are dull and irritating. The cover art is good.” – J. Skeet
- “This book starts off sad and never improves.” – Grant Gibbons
- “I think the idea behind this novel had potential, but I feel like it was executed very poorly. It was like listening to a sad emo kid eat a white bread sandwich.” – Victoria