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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.

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