Normal People by Sally Rooney: A Classic For The Future?

Normal People was one of the most talked-about books of 2018. It was touted as a potential Booker Prize winner (though didn’t get further than longlist); won the Costa Prize and has now been longlisted for the Women’s Prize.

Given all the award nominations, the euphoric reviews and the number of times Normal People appeared in end of year “best books” lists, I was expecting a lot more from the book.

It’s a tale about an on-off romance between two Millenials from completely different backgrounds. Connell and Marianne attend the same school in small town Carricklea in County Mayo, Ireland. Both are high achievers but there the similarity ends. He”s very popular, the star of the school football ; she has no friends; sits alone at lunch breaks reading Proust and is viewed as a bit of a misfit who “wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face.”. He lives with his single parent mother who is a cleaner. She comes from a rich family.

They begin a clandestine relationship in school (secret because he’s afraid of what his friends would think). Marianne persuades Connell to follow her to Trinity College in Dublin. There their lives are reversed; she becomes part of the in-crowd; he feels out of place.

They spend four years alternately pursuing and withdrawing from each other. They can’t commit to each other but neither can they survive apart. Whenever they try to pull apart, to find other partners, one of them will come back, seeking the other’s support and help.

As Connell reflects at one stage, he and Marianne are like figure skaters

…improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her.”

A Novel To Suit All Generations?

I suspect the book was aimed at a different age group than my own – my 20-something year old niece loved it. But I don’t think my lack of rapport was entirely attributable to a generational gap.

Problem number one was that the first half of the book was slow and had far too many scenes that were stuffed with mundane details. Here’s one example, taken from a chapter where at the end of a holiday travelling around Europe, Connor ends up at the Greek villa where Marianne and her friends have made their holiday home.

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

None of this adds to our understanding of character or the dynamics between the characters. It could omitted without materially affecting he narrative in any way.

Familiar Perspective On Love

Second problem: too much of the plot relied upon miscommunication and gaps between what was said and was was felt. David Nicholls used a similar device in One Day but he made it feel fresh and natural; in Rooney’s novel. it felt contrived.

Normal People didn’t seem to be saying anything that hasn’t already been said in other novels about young love and love across a class divide. Actually for a large part of the book I wasn’t even clear what it was trying to say.

In essence I suppose it aims to show how a relationship helps two people who feel alone, adrift and misunderstood, to learn how to be like “normal people.” To reach that understanding they have to endure physical pain (Marianne) and emotional pain (Connell). Exactly what the normality to which they strive consists of, is unclear since there are no “normal people” who act as role models – with the one notable exception of Connell’s mother.

Uninspired By Characters

This brings me to my third issue with Normal People: the characters of the two principals are examined in minute detail but everyone else around them are sketchily rendered.

In Dublin, Marianne is surrounded by people who have few qualities beyond their willing participation in her desire to be hurt. Connell, when he’s not spending every minute with Marianne, strikes up relationships with nice but dull women.

I get the fact that this is a novel about a relationship so all-consuming it robs everything, and everyone else around them, of colour and vitality. But the result is that the other cast members are flattened to the point where they often feel irrelevant. If I’d been deeply invested in Marianne and Connell’s characters , that wouldn’t have been an issue. But I found the repetitive nature of their relationship irritating and annoying.

I’ve seen reviews which describe Normal People as a “future classic”, a novel that shows what it is to be young and in love in the twenty-first century. It’s a novel that has clearly resonated with many readers. I did grow to appreciate it more when it took on a darker tone in the final third. But to put this on a pedestal as a work of classic literature is stretching things too far.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on June 29, 2020, in Book Reviews, Irish authors and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. buriedinprint

    Even though I didn’t love this novel the way that so many people have adored it, I found that it read very quickly and easily. And while I can see how the passage that you quoted about the dinner arrangements could seem lacklustre, I think passages like this make a lot of readers feel right at home in the story; this could be a scene pulled from their own lives, and so they are just as interesting as characters in the book.

    Which could be part of the point. That there are no “normal” people and that we are ALL “normal” people. Anyway, a writer with an eye for detail can include important points in the most innocuous paragraph, and here we have the gals fetching and carrying and the fellas doing the important “doings” to get the wine ready, so it could very well be set in the period that another comment refers to, Drabble’s novels of the 1960s, with not much really having changed between the s*xes: a curious and relevant observation IMO.

    • That particular passage out of context could seem like the mundane actions that form the basis of “normal people’s’ lives but the characters themselves didn’t seem very ordinary to me so I found it hard to relate to them

  2. Hmm I’m really curious about this- but I also hear such mixed things (and didn’t like the author’s other book- which apparently even fans of this one didn’t like, so I’m not entirely put off on that basis). I think the biggest issue for me is how much it sounds like this relies on miscommunication as a trope. I’m fine with that in moderation, but it sounds like this uses it in the extreme.

    • it did rely rather too much on miscommunication. I felt like shouting at these characters often, just tell her/him what you mean instead of just hinting

  3. Reading that first quote re: the wine opening and plate clearing was PAINFUL! No wonder you got frustrated with it. I haven’t read it myself, but I’m thinking if I’ve gone this long without it, I can continue on without it haha

  4. I didn’t enjoy this at all.

  5. Linda Brett Dorf

    My 20-something daughter loved this book. My 60-something friends are less enthusiastic. I’m struggling to get very far – just don’t care about the main characters. Thanks for the great review.

  6. Yup, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to read this after Pam’s review and nothing you say has changed my mind! It has no appeal whatsoever… ;D

  7. My response to this novel was very like yours: I found the two central characters ‘irritating’ (just checked my post from Jan 19). Your quotation shows up perfectly the tendency for the narrative to veer into banality.

  8. I agree with what you say and feel I probably would have liked it better if I’d been in my twenties. It reminded me a little of those Margaret Drabble novels I used to read back then – kind of claustrophobic and intense, and probably not the kind of characters I could relate to either. Maybe it was all about the writing though.

  9. I rarely read books which get as much hype as this one, or if I do I wait a few years. It is lovely for the author that so many people got behind it and made it prize worthy, but it won’t make my reading list.

  10. I began reading this novel and gave up, and after reading your review I’m glad I did. But I am interested about the final third where you say it took on a darker tone – just don’t think I could face the rest of it, as I found it so irritating, the mundane details and the use of the present tense.

  11. Interesting. Preparing to pick up my copy of this from my favorite local bookstore yet this week. I have a Zoom book club meeting later this month to discuss it. I think I’ll like it, but you just never know… 🙂

  12. This is such a good review of this book. I had a hard time reviewing this book because I disliked it so much. I just wanted everything about it to be over and done with. I enjoyed your review of it and couldn’t agree more.

  13. That’s alas the problems with so many books out there received unjustified hype

  14. Alas, I’ve already spent my hard-earned on this, so Ill probably read it one day. But I’m in no rush.

  15. This book holds absolutely no appeal to me. I have a friend who runs a local bookshop and is a published novelist here in Canada. She is older than I am, mid-sixties I imagine, and she loved this book. She took on a cruise to Ireland along with Milkman which she could not get into at all. So she passed her copy of the latter book on to me. I haven’t read it yet but am looking forward to it.

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