Sally Rooney’s newest novel, Normal People (Hogarth) is an engaging page-turner focusing on the shifting relationship between two teenagers from Ireland. This propulsive novel from the author of Conversations with Friends was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, with little wonder.
Connell is a smart, popular athlete with a working class single mother, and Marianne is an intelligent, oddball loner who lives in a mansion with her dysfunctional family, enduring their physical and mental abuse. They are intellectually well-matched classmates but are socioeconomically incompatible so they steer clear of each other in high school. Connell’s mom is the cleaning lady for Marianne’s family and when Connell picks his mom up from work the teenagers’ paths cross. Their attraction is powerful and they have undeniable chemistry in their conversations. Secretly, they agree to spend time together.
Their relationship is complicated in public. The kids at school would never understand or accept them as a couple, but when they are alone together, they cannot imagine the distance that once separated them. “Most people go through their whole lives, Marianne thought, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”
Their feelings grow and the companionship brings them both some sense of normalcy and happiness, until Connell makes a decision that wounds Marianne and changes the course of their relationship. This crucial choice pushes Marianne away, and so begins the rough road of ups and downs these Irish teenagers’ experience in this coming-of-age love story.
Their relationship enters new dynamics as the two embark to college. Marianne struggled with self-worth in high school, but in college she appears more confident and popular with many friends. Connell ends up at the same school but is more reclusive, his security of high school having disappeared. Despite the newfound changes in identity, Connell still truly loves Marianne and tells her he will never let anything bad happen to her.
Their magnetism is still mutual and undeniable, and even though they are not a traditional couple, they feel understood and normal when they are alone together. Unfortunately due to misunderstandings, they butt heads over and over. They are both constantly searching for self-worth and love, and they each have other relationships, but Marianne’s are not always healthy:
There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love. In school the boys had tried to break her with cruelty and disregard, and in college men had tried to do it with sex and popularity, all with the same aim of subjugating some force in her personality. It depressed her to think people were so predictable. Whether she was respected or despised, it didn’t make much difference in the end. Would every stage of her life continue to reveal itself as the same thing, again and again, the same remorseless contest for dominance?
Neither Connell nor Marianne felt normal in their own skin, struggling with intellectual superiority along with insecurities and feelings of unworthiness. They knew each other best, yet communication was often misinterpreted between them. Their reactions based on what they thought was going on impacted the choices they both made along the way, sometimes positively, sometimes to their detriment.
This story tackles social and economic status, depression and dominance…very real and often frustrating. There were things I hoped Connell and Marianne would have said to each other and I desperately wanted a different ending, but even though they suffered the consequences of poor communication, we are left with the hope that these two young people will ultimately find themselves happy and together. Sally Rooney’s writing is direct and gives a clear picture of the complexities of a fluctuating teenage relationship over a four year period. I loved Normal People and highly recommend it!
Normal People is available for purchase.
ABOUT SALLY ROONEY:
Sally Rooney was born in the west of Ireland in 1991. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Granta and The London Review of Books. Winner of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2017, she is the author of Conversations with Friends and the editor of the Irish literary journal The Stinging Fly. Her latest novel is Normal People.