Who are ‘normal people’ and how do they behave? This is the question considered in Sally Rooney’s second novel. Released less than a year after her first novel Conversations With Friends, Normal People is set in the world of Irish student life, starting out in a small rural town but eventually following the protagonists to Trinity College in Dublin, glamorous and intellectual compared to the blandness of the original setting in Galway.
The story starts off like everyone’s favourite romantic comedy from the ‘90s, an awkward and introverted girl finds a connection with the school jock who falls for her but completely ignores her outside of their secret meetings. Connell and Marianne are two star-crossed young lovers, an unlikely pair from the get-go as Connell’s mother Lorraine is Marianne’s cleaning lady.
Marianne starts out as a social outcast despite her large house and wealthy family background, and Connell is the most popular kid in school. But what sets apart Normal People from the average love story is that class politics propel the narrative forward, when the secret high school lovers find their way to Trinity College in Dublin they discover that their social positions have shifted. Marianne has come into her own, now alluring and sophisticated, always the belle of the ball at college parties, whereas Connell is now the outsider, unable to fit into a world where money and family background means everything and is now snidely thought to have “the status of rich-adjacent”. Social class is fluid and interchangeable in Normal People, a concept that is thoroughly modern.
“In some ways, Sally Rooney’s magnificent, painful, Man Booker-longlisted second novel, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut Conversations with Friends, is a meditation on power: the way that beauty, intelligence and class are currencies that fluctuate as unpredictably as pounds and dollars. Then again, it’s also about love and violence, about how damage is accrued and repaired,” wrote Olivia Laing in her analysis of the book.
The book is such an instant success because of Rooney’s ability to craft characters at once original yet incredibly relatable as well. Marianne is frustratingly masochistic, constantly placing herself in situations where she is treated poorly and derives a perverse joy from it, whether it’s from the boyfriend with unsettling porn habits, or the artist who takes advantage of young women on the internet, or from Connell in the early stages of their romance, when he would constantly profess his undying love for her in the bedroom but want nothing to do with her when out in public. Connell suffers from his own demons: wrestling with his conflicting feelings for Marianne in school, and later when he is socially isolated and often financially dependent on Marianne during college, he is depressed and extremely anxious. Both characters suffer from very real and relatable afflictions of the 21st century.
Outside of the complicated dynamics between the couple, friends and family play an illustrative role in the storyline. In high school, the friends are cliche, absorbed in football games, committees and dances, in college their world revolves around drinking bottles of wine and dating around. Family members of the protagonists have an equally superficial presence in the plot, with Connell’s mother playing the role of the ‘good mother’ despite an unwanted pregnancy at just 17 and a criminal family background. Marianne’s family, in contrast, is verbally and physically abusive, her brother controlling and jealous, and her widowed mother cold and distant, always defending her son’s violent bullying towards her daughter. Somehow Marianne doesn’t dwell on the abuse meted out by her family.
Politics also enter conversations with occasional debates regarding Marxism, capitalism, austerity protests, Gaza, and the value of literature peppering the story. The politics embellish the story, further driving the caricature of college life, fleshing out the naivety of college students who believe in lofty ideals such as true love and their ability to solve world problems through their raging debates.
Annalisa Quinn makes an interesting observation connecting Marxism to Rooney’s ethos as a writer in her writeup for The Atlantic. “In Normal People, characters have different things at different times: money, social capital, looks. The novel suggests the possibility of a setup in which these advantages are shared and redistributed according to need. Call it a Marxism of the heart.”
Rooney’s writing style is evocative and pragmatic all at once. Her chapters jump back and forth in time, her characters connecting the dots between their past selves and current circumstances. Often, the book reads like poetry, “He’s moved by a desire to describe in words exactly how she looks and speaks. Her hair and clothing. The copy of Swann’s Way she reads at lunchtime in the school cafeteria, with a dark French painting on the cover and a mint-coloured spine. Her long fingers turning the pages.”
When Connell gets a chance to travel Europe after he secures a scholarship, he begins writing beautiful emails to Marianne. “Cherries hang on the dark-green trees like earrings” and “the air is light with scent, green with chlorophyll”. Other times it is simple observations that hold so much truth: “If people appeared to behave pointlessly in grief, it was only because human life was pointless, and this was the truth that grief revealed”.
The pair find themselves connected with one other by an invisible, unbreakable thread. Despite all that life has in store, the sense of longing and intrigue both of them feel for one another is palpable throughout and they find their way back into each other’s lives. “At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her.”
As Marianne notes like a sage, she and Connell, “have been two plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions”. Perhaps the final takeaway, therefore, is that no one lives in true isolation and we are all connected through a web of relationships, some beneficial and many detrimental. Love in the modern era is more about kindness and empathy and less about romantic gestures and a happily-ever-after.
Book: Normal People
Author: Sally Rooney
Pages: 273 (Hardcover)