First of all, sorry to the Sally Rooney fans, but the TV series is better than the book. This is probably literary sacrilege but it’s true.
Ahh I really don’t know what it is about this book, but I just don’t love it. I read Sally Rooney’s bestseller last summer and while I thought it was good, it didn’t really leave a lasting impression.
The story of a brooding infatuation between Connell and Marianne begins in County Sligo, Ireland, when the two begin secretly sleeping together after school. However, their connection soon reveals itself to be deeper than just sex. Connell’s shame over his friends finding out he’s sleeping with Marianne, a social outcast, clouds his judgement and eventually causes them to split. They meet again in Trinity College Dublin and resume their relationship, although interference from other people and a refusal to acknowledge how they really feel means that their romance is far from simple.
‘It was too late to say he wanted to stay with her, that was clear, but when had it become too late?’ (p. 124)
Communication between the two, or lack thereof, is at the crux of their issue. Often I found myself thinking about what was not said: the depth of their feelings evident to everyone but themselves, as neither are equipped with the tools to communicate maturely. It’s interesting that while the two are able to label other romantic relationships as ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’, they never broach the topic themselves, as though it needn’t be said.
I do think that Rooney expertly depicts the awkwardness of navigating your first love through Connell and Marianne. Second-guessing and confusion juxtaposed with intense infatuation is certainly something I found myself relating to. With this in mind, although Normal People is a love story, the mood of the novel is distinctly lonely and deeply sad.
‘They just move through the world in a different way, and he’ll probably never really understand them, and he knows they will never understand him, or even try.’ (p. 68)
The novel primarily takes place during the pair’s university years and I loved the way that adjusting to university life was presented, particularly from Connell’s perspective. First year is often lauded as the ‘best year of your life’, but Connell, like many of us, has overwhelming imposter syndrome and a difficulty finding ‘his people’. Unlike Connell, Marianne is immediately at home, fitting an over-intellectualised, ‘reads Proust for a laugh’ stereotype like a glove. Although both characters certainly struggle with feeling worthy, Connell’s growing confidence in his own ability is a hopeful image for anyone questioning their place in university.
Normal People is a lovely book. It really is. It’s well written, the characters have depth and it beautifully captures first love in all its awkward, painful glory.
I did enjoy it, I just wasn’t blown away. The BBC’s adaptation, however, is absolutely incredible so definitely give that a watch after reading. Sally, Connell and Marianne get three stars.
Read the novel for yourself: https://whatlilyread.com/re4m