There has been a lot of hype about Normal People (Faber & Faber Books 2018), the second novel by young Irish author Sally Rooney. Readers are raving about it. But pinpointing what exactly they love about this story is hard to define.
This novel captivated me – it is a beautifully-written, simple account of the relationship between two young people, a portrait of friendship and love; a finely detailed account of their interior lives. What makes it special is the intense drilling down by the author into the feelings of these characters – their desire, their greed, their jealousy, their contempt, their attraction – which makes us as readers think more deeply about these emotions in our own lives.
The book encourages us – no, forces us – to be honest about how we view others, about the motivations behind our actions, and about the hidden feelings that we strive so hard to conceal, and it asks us to examine the veracity of our own lives and the dynamics of our relationships with others.
Marianne and Connell grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but with very different backgrounds. Marianne’s family is wealthy and aloof but hides some disturbing family secrets. Marianne copes by maintaining a distance from her schoolmates, appearing disdainful or remote. Connell’s mother cleans house for Marianne’s family. Connell is ruggedly good-looking and popular, with no shortage of friends surrounding him. They have known of each other only from a distance, until one pivotal day when they meet by chance in Marianne’s kitchen and strike up a conversation that is awkward but somehow intriguing for them both. This is the start of their on-again / off-again romance, and their continual friendship and mutual fascination. The story takes place over a period of several years, providing an intensely microscopic evaluation of one incident or day and then jumping forward several months to the next. In this way, we are given snapshots of Marianne’s and Connell’s lives, both separately and together. There are times when Marianne is more enamoured of Connell, and other times when he is more boldly pursuing her. In college, their social roles are reversed, with Marianne becoming more well-liked and outgoing, and Connell suffering from insecurities and anxieties. There are minor misunderstandings or miscommunications which result in major breaches in their relations. Looking on, as readers, we are alert to these and desperately cheering for these two young people to get in sync; it is terribly disappointing during the times that they don’t.
The characters in this book are flawed, complicated and interesting. Marianne and Connell are drawn to each other like magnets, but sometimes they each get turned around and, like magnets, they repel each other. This story is about how each of them navigate the process of becoming a young adult, nurturing some desires and ambitions and letting go of others. With great empathy and tenderness, it explores both sex and power, and all of the ways we use these to hurt each other, and ourselves, emotionally and physically. This is a love story with a difference. A tale of two people who cannot stay away from each other but, paradoxically, also cannot live with each other. They are bad for each other and good for each other in equal measure. This is fine literary fiction featuring complex characters and thought-provoking emotional themes. And a word on the language: I could clearly hear the Irish lilt in the dialogue throughout this story; what a delight.