Normal People was my first foray in Sally Rooney’s work, having heard such good things about this Irish writer.
The story follows Connell and Marianne through a relationship that begins in their final year of school and continues during their years at college. Both grow up in the same small Irish town; Connell is popular and well-liked at school, while Marianne is a social outcast, known for being bookish but also argumentative. Connell’s single mother Lorraine works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house – her family are wealthy but, as we discover, dysfunctional. The two speak occasionally in Marianne’s kitchen when Connell picks his mum up from work, discovering that despite their opposing social standings, they have a lot in common. Connell wonders if there’s something wrong with him for being attracted to Marianne, who his friends deride as ‘ugly and flat chested’. They begin a secret sexual relationship. Connell is terrified of his peers discovering it, and even though he feels more comfortable with Marianne than anyone else, his worry for his social standing ultimately ruins the relationship.
Both Marianne and Connell go to Trinity College, and eventually meet. Now Marianne is the popular one, easily able to move within social circles, while Connell feels lost and uncertain. Their attraction is undeniable though, and the romance begins again.
Thus starts years of confusion and miscommunication as both struggle to maintain a relationship with the other. The ending is ambiguous, but I personally was left with the sense that these two people, so drawn to each other over years, will always circle back to find the other again.
Rooney draws young people beautifully; in early chapters I was constantly reminded of my own later school days and the small dramas which can seem large in the teenage mind. The book alternates between Marianne and Connell’s points of view, sometimes covering the same scenes from each standpoint, and so the reader sees perfectly how they fail to communicate their feelings and how they misunderstand each other. Both are very vulnerable people, but the way they support each other was beautiful to read. The novel captures how complicated and messy human emotion can be, and how difficult it is for us to say what we want.
Image credit: @library_of_a_londoner