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Review: Normal People

I’m finally (and somewhat sadly) reaching the end of the Man Booker longlist: I’m still waiting for Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City to arrive in my mailbox, but in the meantime I finished book #12 (out of 13), Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I saved a couple of titles that I was really looking forward to for last, to end on a high note; Normal People did not disappoint.

normal peopleAbout the book: Connell’s mother works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house. But though Marianne’s family is well-off and Connell’s is just scraping by, Connell is popular at school while Marianne is teased as an outcast. They’ve both accepted the status quo, but the beginnings of a romance between them changes everything. Connell does not want anyone to know what he’s doing with Marianne, and she likes him enough to keep quiet and sneak around. A betrayal changes everything again, but their paths cross again when they’ve both enrolled at the same university. Never quite together and never quite apart, Connell and Marianne navigate their complex relationship as they’re also making choices that will shape the rest of their lives.

“It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.”

This book is addicting. I read the entire novel in two sittings, about half one evening and half the next. On the surface, Rooney’s writing is simple and straightforward, describing the minutiae of these two characters’ unique lives and their primary emotions. Readers looking for flashy, fast-paced prose will not find much of interest here, but Rooney brings hidden depth to the ordinary.

I mentioned reading this book in halves because I had very different experiences with each. The first half of the novel read a bit like a Jane Austen romance for me, the opening conversation between Marianne and Connell simultaneously mundane and suggestive of the complicated long-lasting relationship that would clearly follow. There are ups and downs to the friendship/love between them, but in that first half Marianne and Connell are innocent and sweet (even when hurting each other), and their every interaction is laced with destiny.

“He senses a certain receptivity in her expression, like she’s gathering information about his feelings, something they have learned to do to each other over a long time, like speaking a private language.”

The second half takes a darker turn. Marianne and Connell experience individual setbacks, and their relationship founders in a way that made me question for the first time whether they would actually end up together, or be driven apart drastically altered. While it was fun to see bits of myself in the characters’ thoughts and impressions in that first half- even the unpleasant ones, the feelings of being rejected and bullied and the regret for the lasting impact of hasty decisions- the resonance of the second half took me to some bleaker places. I still connected with Marianne and Connell in turns, but their depressions and experiments and general despair removed any semblance of sweetness from the story. My life is nothing like Marianne’s or Connell’s, and yet their thoughts are so accessible- perhaps too accessible. The second half of the novel left me so sad and heartbroken.

“He knew that the secret for which he had sacrificed his own happiness and the happiness of another person had been trivial all along, and worthless.”

Normalcy is a goal people strive for, that they cry about in the dark when it seems unattainable. Normal People shows both that everything is normal, and that nothing is. Every human experience is as valid as the next, and every experience is unique to a specific person. So many of the details are different, and yet so many of the feelings we have about them are the same. It’s a simple and astounding message that seems at once obvious and ground-breaking.

“I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.”

But before I get too philosophical (or maybe I already have), let me end by saying that Rooney is a master of showing-not-telling, that Normal People is one of those gems of a book in which the reader can know so much more than the characters are able to see. Though the detailed descriptions of Marianne and Connell’s actions and reactions may seem boring and long-winded to some, Rooney is clearly in full control of her themes and the unspoken motivations driving her characters. This is a novel of identity that many will relate to, and I for one was completely engrossed in both the specifics and the underlying messages of this story.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Sally Rooney is an incredibly skilled writer, though her style won’t be for everyone. Personally, I loved it, but I just can’t say I had a 5-star experience with a book that made me as sad as this one did. And yet… I am awed by Rooney’s ability to take me through the full spectrum of emotions and keep me engaged throughout. When I finished this book, I felt like I’d been having a conversation with Rooney that had been interrupted by a sudden “The End,” and I knew I had to read more of her work. I’ve got Conversations With Friends on hold at the library and will be reading it in a week or so, and I’ll probably also be picking up whatever Rooney publishes next.

More of my Man Booker reviews: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, The Overstory, Sabrina, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap.

What’s your favorite book that made you sad to read?


The Literary Elephant