⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Review – Normal People by Sally Rooney
This is an intimate, raw and masterful story about the coming of age that has captivated the modern audience. Normal People, set in 2011 small-town western Ireland, from the perspective of two teenagers, inexplicably tied together despite being each other’s opposites. The two main characters, Connell and Marianne, have grown up around each other. Connell is a rugby lad, considered quite popular at school, while Marianne is headstrong and introverted, she doesn’t go along with the status quo at school and thinks herself above the rest. The pair cross paths when Connell joins his mum as she cleans Marianne’s family house, and they realise that they both feel different from their peers. This leads them to bond over books and to start a secret relationship, which Connell keeps a secret out of shame.
The story follows Marianne and Connell from their meeting at Marianne’s house, through to their secret relationship following a book exchange, which neither of them publicly admit to due to Connell’s shame and embarrassment of Marianne. After Marianne was assaulted by someone in Connell’s friends’ group and he finds out about her mental health issues, he gets scared and cuts their relationship off. Instead, he takes another girl to the Ball and Marianne ignores his calls and doesn’t return to school for the rest of the school year.
The following autumn, they meet again in Dublin, but the roles are reversed, Marianne is among the popular kids, but Connell feels more intelligent and yet less sophisticated than his peers. During this time, they rekindle their relationship, ending it yet again due to miscommunication – leading them both to pursue other relationships, each later experiencing depression and isolation while apart, due to a suicide of a close friend, but they still orbit around each other while not directly involved in each other’s lives. The book ends with them getting together once more, as Connell prepares to undertake an MFA in the US and Marianne supporting him and working through her abandonment issues.
The book is told through select scenes as they weave in and out of each other’s lives over the following years of their lives, through the end of high school and to university. Their on-again, off-again relationship is an intense emotional bond that develops and deepens over time. While aspects of their situations seem difficult to relate to (them both winning major scholarships to the same prestigious university and spending an entire summer travelling Europe), the paths they take keep them in each other’s lives, in positive and negative ways, feel very real and “normal”, despite neither of them seeing themselves as such.
The book has a melancholy feeling to it, as the characters’ lives often seem dark, but the perseverance of their bond, both as friends and as lovers, but always as two people who are there for each other when it matters, remains the core theme of the novel. While this isn’t the modernist masterpiece I expected, Rooney’s minimalist style of writing flows smoothly from prose to dialogue and the pacing and order of scenes help craft the plot in such a way that it keeps you reading and not wanting to put the novel down. Her style is very well-defined and reading this novel has me wanting to pick up Conversations with Friends or any further works she publishes.