By Sally Rooney, A modern will-they-or-won't-they romance
Normal People is Sally Rooney’s second book, and the literati are tripping over themselves in adoration. Move over Daenerys, The Washington Post only bends a knee for Sally Rooney. She was profiled by Vanity Fair, and she’s being hailed as an Instagram status symbol as well as the “Voice of Her Generation.”
As a book lover, I’m very aware there’s a New York-centric bubble of literary types (and wanna-be literary types) that tend to act as an echo chamber for one another. Her previous novel, Conversations with Friends, blended party scenes with philosophy in a way that utterly delighted the trendy literati set (though Amazon and Goodreads readers were less enthused).
But that has nothing to do with the rest of us, who just want to read a good book. So, I dug into Normal People looking to answer a simple question: Is this a good book, or are a bunch of people trying to shove their new fad down our throats?
Normal People is a story set in Ireland about the relationship over time between two people, complicated by their social and socio-economic divisions. Marianne and Connell meet as teenagers in high school. Marianne is bookish, unpopular and wealthy. Meanwhile Connell is a well-liked football player, but his family is of the “wrong” sort.
They’re friends because Connell’s mom works as a cleaner for Marianne’s house. When Marianne admits her feelings for Connell, they begin hooking up secretly. The novel then follows Marianne and Connell’s “will-they-or-won’t-they?” relationship across the next five years.
Book Review: the Stylistic Stuff
Marianne and Connell’s romance is reminiscent of an angst-y version of One Day by David Nicholls. Or maybe a sullen Pride and Prejudice, if Mr. Darcy kicked off his relationship with Elizabeth Bennet by using her for sex and Lizzie had a taste for sadomasochism.
Rooney borrows some chick flick tropes and places it into a format that appears pointedly intellectual. She writes with a cool, sparse detachment, highlighting the alienation and social divisions of the characters.
In Normal People, there are no quotation marks (Rooney doesn’t “understand the function they perform in a novel“), commas are frequently dropped, and run-on sentences fly by freely. There’s many instances here where it makes sense, but there are about a few hundred more where I wondered if it wouldn’t just be easier to read with some more punctuation.
Book Review: the Substantive Issues
The short version of this is that this book didn’t really resonate with me. In the beginning, it seems kind of like an intellectual version of a chick lit novel which was fine, but as it drags on, it lost me. It focuses too much on superficial concerns, and it seems to have a lack of self-awareness about its inner contradictions.
Rooney herself describes her books as “stories about fake people.” She writes about urban, educated, young people who have fancy dinner parties and drink wine while talking about social justice. But while the book sneers at the phonies all around, it doesn’t seem to recognize its own detached sense of smug superiority.
Its cast of secondary characters is comprised mainly of straw-men – two-dimensional, terrible people. Our main characters, Marianne and Connell are both wracked with insecurity, but convinced that they’re better than the rest of these awful, basic bitches. The novel strokes the egos of its readers because we’re “in” on the joke, looking down at everyone else with them.
Also, of the topics covered, social divisions is a big one. But Normal People both resents and reveres popularity and social status. The narration simmers bitterly with disdain, yet its preoccupation with it implies a deeper longing.
I was also very underwhelmed by Rooney’s display of what she thinks socio-economic disparity looks like. Connell wears less fancy clothes, but he has access to the same opportunities as everyone else and his family’s financial disparity seems to have very little impact on the particulars of his family life. Rooney’s depiction of it seems like a caricature of what rich people think poor people’s lives are like. It’s not just about simmering in shame and resentment because you don’t have brand named clothing.
Other stuff: The book sort of looks at the effects of physical abuse and depression, but it doesn’t seem to have much insight to offer on those topics. There’s also arguably an anti-feminist slant to the story overall. And by the end, the plot gets a little repetitive. But I had long stopped taking this story seriously by then, so these were the least of my concerns.
Comparisons to Salinger and Plath
Rooney has drawn comparisons to Salinger and Plath, presumably because they both also wrote angsty books about modern, urban life. But in addition to both being more insightful books, in The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye, there’s a genuine and open longing for human connection that lies underneath all the angst and melancholy.
Holden and Esther don’t desire social status. They’re searching for innocence regained and something resembling happiness. These books comment on the superficial, but they grapple with the human condition.
Meanwhile, Marianne in Normal People grapples with … FOMO? An oft-quoted section of the text reads: “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was or become part of it.” Yup, fear of missing out. It’s true and it’s a thing, but it’s also a fairly superficial concern.
As best, I found watered down facsimiles of Salinger-esque angst. For example, Connell inwardly grouses that his college discussions are abstract because no one is doing the class readings. And he muses that everyone around him only reads books as status symbols.
Read it or Skip it?
I know this is one of my harsher reviews, but I just didn’t enjoy this book. I understand why others might like it, as it is a very accessible, modern romance about beautiful, smart, worldly people.
But for me, it came off as shallow and kind of hypocritical. Plus, the main characters were too pitying, too self-loathing, too self-involved and too condescending for me to connect with on any level.
It’s pretty obvious that others may disagree with me regarding this book, and that’s okay! Feel free to share your thoughts below!
Detailed Plot Summary (Spoilers)
This story takes place across five years.
January – March 2011
Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron are teenagers living in Ireland. They are friends, but pretend not to know each other in school. Marianne is the smartest girl in school, but is unpopular. She reads a lot and doesn’t wear make-up or dress well. Her parents are lawyers. Connell is a good-looking, studious football player. The economics teacher, Mrs. Neary, is flirty with Connell, which makes him queasy. Connell’s mother, Lorraine, is a cleaner. She works for Marianne’s family.
Marianne likes Connell, and thinks he’s attractive. Connell is her only friend. Connell feels comfortable with her, but doesn’t have many thoughts about her beyond that. She tells him she likes him. He kisses her. He’s sexually experienced, but it’s her first kiss. He tells her not to tell anyone about the kiss. Eventually, they end up having sex, and then continue to (secretly) hook up.
April – August 2011
Marianne is on the Debutante Ball’s fundraising committee with Rachel Moran (the most popular girl in school), Karen and Lisa. They have an event at a club, and Connell is there, too. Rachel is jealous when she sees Connell watching Marianne. An older man gropes Marianne, and Rachel tells her it’s no big deal, prompting Connell to stand up for Marianne.
That night, she tells him that her dad used to hit her mom. Connell comforts her and tells her he loves her. The next morning, Connell’s mom finds them together, and she tells Connell that she already knows.
Connell’s friends tease him for leaving with Marianne, and he reflexively asks Rachel Moran to the Deb Ball. He tells his mom, who realizes he’s keeping his relationship with Marianne secret out of pride, and she calls him a disgrace.
After finding out Connell asked Rachel to the dance, Marianne quits school. Alan, Marianne’s older brother, teases her when Connell ends up doing slightly better on a standardized test than her. Alan is a bully and is often physically aggressive towards her.
November 2011 – July 2012
Connell and Marianna both end up at Trinity for college. Connell works in the garage on the weekends. He’s self-conscious about not being able to afford the clothes that other people have. Marianne now smokes and is dating Gareth, who is popular because of the great parties he throws. Gareth invites Connell to a party and reintroduces them.
Marianne ends up introducing Connell to her friends, who look down on him because he’s working class. Connell apologizes for the way he treated her, and she forgives him. They sleep together again and start dating, though the’re not a couple. Marianne acts very blasé about the relationship, but Connell realizes he still has a lot of power over her and feels queasy about it.
Connell dumps her before the summer starts, and Marianne is humiliated again.
We find out that Connell dumped Marianne because he couldn’t afford to stay at university over the summer. He wanted to ask her to stay at her place, but ended up feeling too awkward about it. Connell tells his mom that they were only casually dating, and that Marianne would never want to date someone of his social status.
Connell runs into Mrs. Neary who comes on to him and tries to have sex with him, but he feels ill and it doesn’t happen.
Marianne begins dating this guy Jamie who is a sadomasochist in bed. She says that she was the one who suggested being submissive with him, and it turns out he enjoys beating her up. She tells Connell about him.
Peggy is Marianne’s best friend and they spend a lot of time together, though Peggy is often mean to her and makes jokes at her expense.
Connell gets mugged and punched in the face, and he calls Marianne for help. He gets cleaned up at her place, and she gives him some cash. He tells her he’s dating someone, Helen Brophy. He says he loves Helen, which makes Marianne cry.
Many months later, Connell and Helen are still together, though he e-mails Marianne regularly. Helen finds Marianne self-absorbed. Connell dislikes Jamie as well.
Connell and Marianne spend the summer travelling with friends through Europe. Jamie is with them, though Helen is in Chicago. Connell’s able to go because of a university scholarship he received (which Marianne also got) which gives him some degree of financial freedom.
As they have dinner one night and Jamie is being a noticeable asshole. Marianne is upset and walks out. Connell follows her, calming her down. He hugs her, but then kisses her until she tells him to stop.
December 2013 – March 2014
Marianne is spending her third year studying in Sweden. She dumped Jamie, which resulted in her losing most of her friends.
She’s seeing a guy named Luka. He’s also kind of a jerk who likes her to be submissive, to tie her up and take pictures. One day, when she’s reluctant, he says he loves her to try to coax her into doing what he wants. This strikes her as false, so she leaves him.
Connell visits a therapist at the college counseling services. He had heard a few months ago from Rachel that Rob, a classmate of theirs, killed himself. Since then, he’s had anxiety attacks and panic attacks. She tells him that he’s depressed.
Connell goes to a literary reading and comments that he doesn’t see the point of them. He ends up going out for a drink with the writer and he agrees as well.
Connell publishes a short story under a pen name (Conor McCreary) in April.
Marianne and Connell hang out a lot the summer after she gets back from Sweden. They re-hash a past miscommunication, and have a more honest conversation about their feelings. They are about to have sex, but Marianne asks him to hit her, and he says he can't. Marianne leaves instead.
Marianne gets home and Alan is giving her a hard time. He ends up opening a door into her face when he is trying to barge into her room. Marianne calls Connell, who comes over. He drives her to the hospital and threatens her brother, telling him he'll kill him if he ever touches her again.
Connell is now the editor of the college literary magazine. Marianne and Connell are now a couple. Connell finds out he got into the MFA program at Cornell. It's good news, but means he needs to leave. Marianne wonders if he's going to be with Sadie, a friend of his who will also be there, and he says no. He reassures Marianne that he loves her.
At the end she encourages him to go. She knows she'll wait for him, and that even if they don't end up together, he helped her to feel worthy so she'll be okay.See Normal People on Amazon.