Normal People is Extraordinary

Normal People: A Novel (2019)
By Sally Rooney
Hogarth, 268 pages.

An old adage holds that you can’t judge a book by its cover but if there’s anything that’s a near certainty, it’s that the characters in a book titled Normal People aren’t. This small gem from Irish novelist Sally Rooney centers on two misfits: Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron. It opens in January 2011 as the two are in the homestretch of high school, and it takes us though to February 2015, when they are finishing university. I mention the dates, as Rooney structures her book episodically and each new chapter is headed with titles such as “Three Weeks Later,” “Two Days Later,” “Four Months Later,” etc.

Marianne and Connell are as outwardly different as chalk and cheese, as they say in Ireland and the UK. Though they both live in the small town of Carricklea in County Sligo, Marianne comes from an haute bourgeoisie family whereas Connell is decidedly of working-class stock. In fact, his mother, Lorraine, does housekeeping for Marianne’s mother, Denise. What they share in common is that is intellectually gifted, psychologically fragile, and socially gauche. To their classmates, each is “weird,” though Connell has friends and Marianne has none. Who, after all, could get past her frostiness, her tart tongue, or her utter refusal to conform to anything that resembles the norms of her peers?

Lest you think this a teen version of When Harry Met Sally or some sort of typical boy-meets-girl coming of age tale, let me assure you it’s not that simple. First, the two are rivals for top academic honors at their school. Marianne is in the race because she’s so smart she can excel by coasting and because for her it’s basically a big middle finger to those who taunt her. Connell works hard because top honors is the only way he could ever hope to go to university–though he thinks maybe he should skip it and get a job to help his mum. Although shares Marianne’s low self-esteem, he’s nonetheless a mensch–a gentleman who is attentive to women and believes in the equality of the sexes. This also makes him an oddball. Although Connell occasionally tries to fit in with his mates, he’s lousy at it, and is more comfortable around Marianne. Of her Rooney writes, “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it. …She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person.”

She is wrong about that. Connell befriends her, but furtively to spare both of them embarrassment. It begins with two outcasts sharing their frustration and evolves into what each believe to be casual sex. Marianne is baffled that Connell finds her attractive, yet their friendship goes into deep freeze when Connell doesn’t ask her to go to Debs (a prom analog) with him. By the time both are at Trinity, an even more unorthodox relationship emerges and their (relative) popularity polls reverse. Connell becomes acutely aware of being a blue-collar bloke who can see through bourgeois BS. In one class–he’s a lit major–he describes a pretentious assigned essay as, “culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”

The heart of the novel, though, is encapsulated in the title. Rooney writes, “Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so he could copy from example.” The same could be said of Marianne. Both yearn to be “normal,” though they’ve no clue what that might mean. It is at the very core of why, even when the two are barely speaking to each other, they are walking quantum entanglements. What does all of this portend for their futures with or without each other? Read and find out.

Sally Rooney is just 27–not much older than her characters–yet she is able to detach and analyze in ways that writers twice her age are often unable to do. She has been hailed by The New Yorker as the “first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism.” I’m not keen on any of the “generations” labels, hence that tag line strikes me as if it’s one of Connell’s call-bullshit critiques. I do, however, give Rooney great credit for mapping some of the minefields through which younger folks must tread these days. Rooney is an unabashed lefty, but Normal People isn’t a political novel. It’s more individual and profound than that. It’s about trying to figure out identity, values, and commitment when someone like Rooney isn’t there to provide safe passage through the aforementioned minefields.

Rob Weir

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