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