Sally Rooney’s Normal People is a novel that left me with mixed emotions. Whilst parts of it I appreciated, understood and enjoyed, there were also many aspects that made it a frustrating story to read.
At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers—one they are determined to conceal. A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.
The novel follows Marianne and Connell, over a timeline of a few years, in which they have to deal with social class differences, popularity and moving to college alongside a variety of other difficulties that people of their age group face. Rooney writes excellently about the small details of everyday life and the teenage awkwardness that comes with falling in love. And so it is a love story, but a hectic one at that, which leads me to the first thing about this novel that I’m not entirely sure about.
As the title suggests we follow normal people with normal lives, and so unlike many books that have a romantic element, the love story in this book isn’t so magnificent that it’s unrealistic. Instead, it is real and complicated. Connell, a popular boy from a working-class family, and Marianne, a rich and strong-willed girl who despite this is very alienated, are unable to be together yet also cannot seem to stay apart. Despite their obvious need to somehow be in each other’s lives, they remain confused about their feelings for one another. This confusion leads Marianne and Connell to handle things in the wrong way, almost making every situation worse for themselves, and there was certain behaviours and dialogue between the two which just didn’t sit completely right with me. I think that it’s important for some books to show how the theme of love can be problematic as unfortunately it’s a reality for many people, however I also believe it’s important for books that contain this kind of story line to explicitly discuss what isn’t healthy and why. And in my opinion, Rooney didn’t address this to the extent she could have done.
Moving on to the writing style, once again I have more mixed opinions; I cannot decide whether I like or dislike it. On one hand I think it’s clever how Rooney chose to not use quotation marks – perhaps to support the whole idea of how communication takes effort to understand – but it was extremely tiresome trying to decipher dialogue. Additionally there are also jumps in the timeline. The smaller jumps were not an issue as they were necessary to keep the story going, but there were some pretty big ones which made me feel disconnected to the story and characters at times. But in spite of that, I understand that for this story to work it was essential for the timeline to be large in order to truly show how relationships change over time.
So in many ways I can see why Normal People has received so much love; the writing is clever and it was refreshing to read a love story that didn’t shy away from realism in order to create a compelling story. But unfortunately, whilst I appreciated what this book was trying to convey, it just wasn’t for me.