Normal People (2018) is one of those books that ‘everyone’ has read and reviewed. So of course I am late to yet another party, a party I wouldn’t have attended at all except I picked up a copy for $1 at the Red Cross where Milly volunteers. I started reading, and I was hooked.
January 2011 Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell. She’s still wearing her school uniform, but she’s taken off the sweater, so it’s just the blouse and skirt, and she has no shoes on, only tights
Oh, hey, he says.
Come on in.
So from the start, which this is, we see how Rooney means to go on. The principal characters are Marianne and Connell, classmates in the final year of high school – in a smallish town in western Ireland, hillbilly country if you’re from Dublin, though this doesn’t come up for 2 or 3 chapters – outsiders, in different ways, but clearly the two top students. A few lines down we meet Lorraine, Connell’s mother, who cleans for Marianne’s mother a couple of days a week. We see the detail, in this case exactly what items of clothing Marianne is and isn’t wearing, which Kimbofo in her review found obtrusive but which I thought allowed us time to pay proper attention to the action; and of course the absence of quotation marks which I might not have noticed at all except Kim pointed it out. The writing is all in the third person, alternatively from Connell’s POV then from Marianne’s.
The starting position is that Marianne is a bit weird, holds herself aloof from her classmates, doesn’t wear make up, has never been with a boy. While Connell is ‘normal’, captains the school soccer team, hangs with his mates Eric and Rob, has had sex (which he didn’t enjoy), gets hit on by Miss Neary their Economics teacher. Connell, as we have seen, is often at Marianne’s, to drive his mother home, and although they never speak at school, they are friends at least in that small space.
Soon, and almost without preamble they are sleeping together.
The following year when they go up to Trinity College Dublin, Marianne is the ‘normal’ one, outgoing and popular while Connell subsides into loneliness.
Then, a few years later Connell is in a normal relationship with a Helen, a med student, while Marianne is in increasingly abusive relationships with her friend Peggy and Jamie a chinless merchant banker type.
All through, they struggle to maintain their special friendship.
My feeling as a guy reading, and loving, this story was that this was Marianne’s story. Connell, not always but often, felt like a cardboard cutout around which Marianne rose and fell as her backstory was slowly unveiled. I know it’s expected of me to say stuff like this, but Rooney, a woman, is much more perceptive about girls than she is about boys. She knows viscerally the social hierarchy of popularity of girls at schools, but fails to understand the similar hierarchy for boys which flows directly from football, and which the top boys carry forward with them into their real life, as confidence, and often entitlement. A confidence which Connell at Trinity strangely lacks, even allowing for for his rural, working class background.
From the point of that first sex we are rooting, to coin a phrase, for Marianne and Connell to form a permanent relationship. At times they come close then Connell makes a mis-step and Marianne is on her own again. During those intense final months of high school Connell says he loves Marianne but takes the popular girl, Rachel to the end of year Debs. They don’t see each other again until well into term 1 at Trinity. And hook up and break up. And so it goes.
It seems they pretend to each other that they are friends with benefits, and it mostly seems to us that Connell is never sure of Marianne’s feelings for him, and that Marianne would commit if only Connell would.
But all through there is a brittleness to Marianne which we are given clues about, her bullying by her older brother, what she tells Connell about her late father, and then, towards the end of their undergraduate years, her unsuitable relationships, with Jamie who Connell finally sees off, and then Lukas who ..
tells her bad things about herself. It’s hard to know whether Marianne likes to hear those things; she desires to hear them, but she’s conscious by now of being able to desire in some sense what she does not want. The quality of gratification is thin and hard, arriving too quickly and then leaving her sick and shivery. You’re worthless, Lukas likes to tell her. You’re nothing. And she feels like nothing, an absence to be forcibly filled in.
To put it bluntly, when Marianne is not with Connell she goes out with sadists.
The resolution of this problem, and I think it is resolved, takes all the second half of this fascinating, deeply satisfying and beautifully well written book. I’ve read it twice now, to get this review done, and still I can only hint at how deep it goes in laying out and developing Marianne’s character in particular, but also Connell’s. What I can say is I loved it as much the second time as the first.
Sally Rooney, Normal People, Faber & Faber, London, 2018
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Kate, Booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)
28 thoughts on “Normal People, Sally Rooney”
I was late to this party too but unlike you, I want all that excited to be there. I found it hard to engage with these two people so just got irritated by the frequent ways in which they go their separate ways because of miscommunication,
I wonder if it’s a very personal book. I think I read throughout with myself in Connell’s place and that coloured how I saw it. I am very prone to mistakes and miscommunications!
I’m also sensing a generational difference in attitudes to the book. I know its a generalisation but the younger people I’ve connected with who have read this seem far more favourable than the older age group.
Younger people agonize over relationships, a stage I never grew out of.
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I didn’t like it at all but can appreciate what you wrote. I found it simply tedious and I didn’t care about the characters. I love seeing different viewpoints though so enjoyed your review.
Life would be dull if we all liked the same books. And like you I think, I enjoy reading reviews for their own sake, whether or not I enjoyed the book.
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I’m late to the party too, but that’s because I’ve read unenthusiastic reviews and haven’t taken the book off the TBR.
Now I am conflicted… I was going to turf it and now I think I shouldn’t. Oh, the dilemma!!
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I tempted to say turf it, so I don’t get the blame if you don’t like. But if Kate is willing to share the load then I guess you should go ahead. even after all these years I’m not sure if you like characters getting all deep and meaningful about why their relationships aren’t working, but that is certainly one of the strengths of this book. Yes, give it a try, if only just for the writing.
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You know me well. I am so deeply, profoundly bored by the narcissism of books about relationships.
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I think your recommendation to Lisa to turf is probably the right one – though I haven’t read this! Me, on the other hand, your review has just confirmed that this is probably a book I would like.
BTW I’m interested in Kim’s comment about the lack of quotation marks. That seems to me to be very common these days – I’ve seen it in a lot of contemporary novels, and I rather like it. I like the spare (!!) uncluttered look.
As I said, I don’t normally notice stuff like that (quotation marks – I wonder if years in the trade makes Kim read with an editor’s eye), so obviously it doesn’t make the text confusing to read. I hope you do read it, I’d like your take on Marianne’s propensity for victimhood.
Yay! I LOVED this book. It felt very, very real to me. You say of Rooney that she “…is much more perceptive about girls than she is about boys” – this bit of your review caught my eye (and the bit about the story being arranged around Marianne). Obviously I am looking through a female lens, but my immediate thought was that if that is true (that the story is arranged around Marianne), then Rooney gets the female interpretation of the male hierarchy exactly right. So, if she misses bits, fails to see the nuance that you see Bill, then I think that only serves to highlight the liminal space between Marianne and Connell, and in fact explores that very slight disconnect. I don’t feel like I’m articulating this very well, but what it comes down to is very clever writing (are the ‘failures’ deliberate, so that the reader sees both sides? Or so that readers of different gender engage?)
If you have access to Stan television (even if it means signing up for free month), watch the series – Rooney wrote the screenplay and it is as equally enthralling as the book.
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I think we may have been looking for the same thing Kate – that deep diving into M & C’s characters during those often crucial years from high school through university. I checked Rooney’s bio and it’s interesting how much of herself she has spread over both her protagonists. Realistically, I think after C’s first or second mistake they would have gone on to entirely separate lives, so perhaps it is a measure of M’s dependence that they keep getting back together. I feel really bereft that I have I stopped reading about them.
I think Milly and her sister have Stan now, so if I ever get out of quarantine – and if I keep running to Melbourne I may not – I’ll get them to watch it with me.
I’m in the same camp as you Bill, and Kate. I loved this book, but then I (usually) love reading about relationship angst.
I thought that Rooney captured the torment and insecurity of that particular age and stage in life perfectly. As someone who tied herself up in knots over all that boy stuff in my teens and twenties, I felt everything they were going through.
But I also felt extremely grateful that that period of my life is long behind me! Which made reading this more a bittersweet nostalgia trip for me.
I’m pleased I have some support. I think Normal People is how JA would have written Pride & Prejudice if she were born 2 centuries later.
I’ve not really been keen on this one for some reason, maybe the hype!
I feel the same about lots of new books, but some nice English person (apparently the Australian cover is a different colour) donated it to the Red Cross and how could I not read it for just $1. I could say buy it, and then I could relive it again in 2023 when it finally reached the front of your TBR.
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Ha – busted!
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I’m interested in the way reviewers and critics debate Rooney’s status in the publishing world: is she chick lit, or is she literary fiction. They must know! Like Kim, I tend to find extensive clothing details to be tedious, especially because I don’t feel like it’s my job to hold every scarf and sock as an image in my head, to try and decide if the whole outfit goes together or if it’s trendy or sloppy. Stories about people who are together off and on need to be done very carefully for me to enjoy them. A movie such as When Harry Met Sally will send me into a rage, but something with more pining and distance, like Sleepless in Seattle, suits me better.
This is why my daughter gets angry about ‘chick lit’. Of course Normal People is literary fiction, it’s a serious and very well written novel about personality and relationships. It is neither light hearted nor comedic.
Stories about the guy self-sabotaging a relationship, through anxiety or jealousy, make me anxious, but I keep reading. In Normal People I didn’t think either of them sabotaged the relationship so much as they just failed for a long time to understand each other properly.
I really dislike Tom Hanks but Sleepless is probably my favourite Rom.Com.
I hate the fact the fact that I love the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie You’ve Got Mail. I love everything about it, and then, like I had amnesia, I remember that the whole movie is him knowing her identity, crushing her small business, and wooing her while pretending to only be her friend. I’ve talked to other women about this, and they know it too, but we still love the movie. What is wrong with us??
You’re not alone. I knew that there was another MR/TH movie that grabbed me, I just couldn’t be bothered looking it up. It is a loveable movie and yet the premise is despicable. There must be something wrong with us.
I’m a Harry Met Sally gal, the other 2 left me cold. But then I’m a sucker for Nottinghill, so my taste is rather questionable!
If I’m going to watch an Empire State Building rom com with full on pathos, then Deb Kerr and Cary Grant are my go-to sweethearts.
It’s a very long time since I watched old movies, but I used to stay up late to watch Fred Astaire (Milly said it was avoidance behaviour). Fay Wray was the star of the only other Empire State Building movie that I remember.
Even though I’ve heard this book described as a love it/hate it read, I feel like I’m solidly in the middle. The way that I read it — over two days and not because it was a short-term library loan — feels more like the ‘love it’ camp but I never felt as though I fully and completely connected to the characters the way that I thought i might with a story like this, with so much intimate detail too (usually relationship stories are exactly my cuppa). Which leads me to think that it might have had something to do with the other books I was reading around the same time. When I watched the first episode of the TV series, I was struck by how well they seemed to have captured the tone/feel of the novel, but I haven’t gotten back to that yet either (while everyone else seems to be watching MORE, I’m watching less these days). I love that you loved this story. Enough to read it twice! It puts paid to the theory that it’s a book for millenials, as though any single generation has a monopoly on wanting relationships to work and finding their ins-and-outs of interest.
I’ve never really stopped reading books with protagonists in their 20s and 30s. Arrested development! Or more likely I’m just very late to the party in understanding how relationships work and so am endlessly curious about them. I picked it up though because the name was familiar from reviews that I’d read (I have no idea at all what’s on television). I did a couple of weeks work in between reading and reviewing. When I picked the book up to start looking for extracts and to remind me how it went, it was easier just to sit down and enjoy it all over again. Of course it helps that I never retain more than a fraction of what I read.
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