Goodreads: Normal People
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years.
This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us – blazingly – about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.
CW/TW: major depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, depictions of physical and sexual abuse, questionable consent, bondage.
This has been difficult to review because I was so prepared to dislike it only to end up really enjoying it. After reading both of her novels, Rooney’s writing style is very clear to me — simple, not very descriptive, astute observations about people, deep shuddering thoughts, lack of punctuation for speech. It’s not for everybody, and I know when I read Conversations with Friends, it was one of the things I really disliked; I felt nothing when I was ready to feel everything! Normal People was written in the same way, her characters even had similar attributes, and yet, I still managed to enjoy it way more than I could the former. I’m not even sure I can tell you why besides the fact the characters were much more likable but I’m quite thrilled to be proven wrong about not liking this!
I’m trying hard to articulate my thoughts in a way that flows well, but I’m finding it really tough because of the mood the book has left me in. There are some mild spoilers in this review but it’s quite difficult to write something without giving away some of the interactions. So the first thing that comes to mind is that it made me feel profoundly sad and slightly depressed (the CW at the bottom of this post is no joke, especially if you’re a sensitive reader like me). I don’t think it’s bad that the book made me feel this way but please consider this when you’re deciding to read it or not. I actually liked it because of how deeply I connected to the emotions and how I came to care for them so much; I was really invested in Connell and Marianne, which made it a more difficult but enjoyable read. If you can’t tell, I had lots of contradicting thoughts and feelings about it but simply put: I really liked it and I think it will stay with me for a while.
There’s not much of a plot or storyline to the book. As I mentioned above, Rooney’s style is very simple and her writing is a contrasting mix of detachment and very deep and intense feeling. At times this was such a painful read because the story was so packed with dark and heavy emotions but there was also an apathy to the text. I often had the urge to scream or cry because of how honest the writing was. Rooney created such raw and real characters with them and I completely empathize with what they went through. They are far from perfect but that’s also part of what made them more likable.
The book follows Marianne and Connell as they go from high school in a small Irish town to college in Dublin. In their hometown, Connell is middle class and extremely popular. Marianne is rich but considered a freak and is frequently bullied. When Marianne and Connell strike up a friends-with-benefits arrangement, they both agree to not act differently in public (i.e. they continue to ignore the other’s existence) but they find solace in their relationship and realize it’s when they can most be themselves. The book is a character study of these two very dysfunctional young people who can’t step out of each other’s orbits, no matter how far apart they go, but who can never summon the courage to be honest with their feelings for each other. The nature of their on-again-off-again relationship goes through so many repetitive cycles of friendship and romance, and even though their dependency and willingness to indulge the other was often unhealthy and problematic, you can’t help but feel invested in and comforted by what they have.
They are both mired in their own depressions but for different reasons and to varying degrees. Class and social status play a defining role in their relationship, with one always feeling like they’re less adjusted, more awkward, less popular, and more alone than the other. Marianne’s is an all consuming emptiness that’s (self)perpetuated by her masochism. Unlike Connell she doesn’t seek anyone’s approval but she has deep seated issues with playing a role that confirms her own views of how she fits in. There were so many times where I felt frustrated with her character and the decisions she’d make, but at the same time, I longed to help her. I was hoping that she would’ve experienced more growth by the end, but in a way it was also fitting that she didn’t because it meant keeping the cycle going. Connell’s character was also far from perfect, but he grew a lot throughout the novel and I found I enjoyed experiencing it. Seeing him go from this awful character in high school who was so consumed by what others thought of him that he treated Marianne like trash, to confronting his depression and anxiety and learning to be more communicative was very rewarding. I don’t think he was with Marianne for the right reason — the “hero complex” was strong with this one — but I do think he was the most honest with himself with her, and that her support really helped him grow. Even if he very much used their relationship to satisfy his own ego.
One of the main frustrations I had was the epic miscommunication between the two. The misunderstandings between what they were saying and what they heard was so infuriating. Oftentimes they never really listened to each other. Yet time and again, they’d fall back together and I’d be there cheering them on; feeling hopeful that they’ve grown enough to overcome their distrust and problems, and to finally FINALLY find happiness with each other.
This would’ve been a five star read for me but several reasons, especially the ambiguous ending, brought it down to a four. Can I please reiterate how much I don’t like these types of open-ended conclusions where it feels the characters are cut off mid-thought or action? I wasn’t ready for the book to end when it did and the abruptness left me full of angst over all the ‘unfinished business’.
In a way I do understand why Rooney left it like that because both characters, Marianne especially, still had a lot to overcome between themselves for there to be a happy ending, and that’s if there ever could be one between them. It really hurt to see how Marianne accepted the happiness that Connell brought into her life over the last several months, but was so quickly willing to let it go due in large part (I believe) to her masochism and how she feels the only time she is worth anything is if she’s feeling pain. It’s very sad, and again perpetuates the cycle between the two, but I think of how Marianne feels he won’t come back and I do believe that if Connell leaves he will find a better life for himself on the other side of the pond.
END SPOILER THOUGHTS
Sorry for the ramble 😬Have you read Normal People or Rooney’s debut, Conversations with Friends? If you read either of them, I’d be curious to know your thoughts!