Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Emma Drewett 19 December 2018

‘Did you know that the author of Conversations with Friends has written something new?’ ‘Have you heard about Sally Rooney’s new book?’ ‘Have you read that new novel Normal People? I’ve heard it’s going to be big.’

Following the success of Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney has recently published her highly anticipated novel Normal People. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, her novel was certain not to disappoint. Charting the chaotic ‘love-story’ (if it can even be labelled as such) between Connell and Marianne in a small town in the west of Ireland, Rooney aptly captures the multifaceted nature of friendship and love, and the daunting chasm between late adolescence and adulthood.

We are first introduced to the complex dynamic between Connell and Marianne, as the pair situate themselves in the kitchen, where we find Lorraine, Connell’s mother, ‘peeling off a pair of rubber gloves’ and untying her apron. Here, we see the socio-economic rift between the pair, as Rooney continues that ‘[p]eople 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 two facts’. This idea of a body of ‘[p]eople’, who are well-aware of the reputation and background of their peers, sets the scene for the gossip, social hierarchies, cliques and stereotypes which define school life. In a more conventional depiction of school life we would expect Marianne to be socially revered, governing the school with her ‘mean-girl’ popularity. Instead, however, Connell sits higher in the social chain than the mansion-living Marianne. Ostracised from her classmates, Marianne is friendless and strange, making Connell’s interactions with her a threat to his social standing. That being said, it is only within the shadows of this ‘special relationship’ that Connell is able to foster a closer bond with the isolated Marianne, whilst maintaining his schoolboy popularity.

Normal People is not as Romeo and Juliet as it may seem from this description. It is far more than a tale of two star-crossed lovers, the popular and the unpopular, and the blooming of an unlikely love. Rooney explores the constant mistreatment of Marianne, from her peers, her mother, her brother, her friends, her lovers and even Connell. This novel leaves its reader emotionally crumpled, as we bear witness to the submissiveness of a girl who believes herself unworthy. Rooney takes us from empathy to anger, distress to excitement, shock to emptiness. The tables turn, the story revolves, opinions back-track, and lives fast-forward.

Dating her chapters, Rooney makes the reader sharply aware of the timescale of events, darting from ‘Six Weeks Later’ to ‘Three Months Later’. With bursts of events, ‘Normal People’ catapults its reader across time and, despite the abrupt temporal leaps, it manages to stay completely fixated upon and rooted in the ‘special relationship’ between Marianne and Connell. Mirroring the temporal gaps, the pair are often spatially distanced and yet, somehow, always manage to gravitate back towards one another. Although Rooney cautiously manoeuvres around social anxieties, hierarchies, familial tensions and the difficulties of growing up, I wouldn’t describe the novel as a Bildungsroman. For me, Normal People paradoxically progresses, yet makes no movement at all. ‘Two Months Later’ the chapter declares, and yet it seems as though Connell and Marianne are still stuck in a similar rut to the one of the previous chapter. Does anyone ever really learn from their mistakes? Do they learn valuable life lessons? Are they prepared to change? It’s hard to tell.

Rooney so cleverly bottles the irresistibility of their love, the intensity, the passion, the need for each other that consistently draws and entices the couple back together. As the novel progresses, Marianne and Connell seem less inhibited by distance, social status or class, and the judgements of their peers. That being said, the pair are not entirely free. Instead, they seem constantly interrupted, almost there but not quite, standing face to face but unable to align. There is something so right and so wrong about the relationship between these complex figures, which leaves the reader with a strange discomfort. When reading Normal People I felt that I could not sit still, metaphorically speaking; I could not ‘pick a side’, so to speak. I found myself trying to work out what was best for Marianne and, in turn, what was best for myself. Did I want a happy relationship between Marianne and Connell? Did I want Marianne to walk away from the catastrophic, self-destructive love she had to offer and was being offered? Was I, at times, envisaging myself as Marianne, projecting past-relationships and encounters onto these two-dimensional characters and understanding precisely why Marianne found herself subsumed into the idea of her first love? Perhaps I speak of the characters as if they are real people for this exact reason.

After all of that, I still feel as though I do not have the words to truly express the thoughts and feelings that Normal People unlocked within me, the questions it raised and the introspection it provoked. It seems that the only way to communicate how Rooney’s novel made an impact would be to say, quite simply, ‘Read it. It will change how you think.’ It would’ve reduced my word count significantly if I’d arrived at this conclusion from the start, but I hope that some of what I written will inspire at least one person to pick up this novel and see how it shapes your outlooks and perceptions of relationships, friendships, youth, love and life.