Where do I start with this one? I finished this book in two days at the start of May, and I’m still struggling to find any words for it. As you all know by now, I’m a massive fan of Sally Rooney and her writing. She’s blunt, to the point, and creates the dialogue that I actually want to read- which is quite the task for a reader like me who hates dialogue. After finishing Conversations With Friends and her short story, Mr Salary, I was quickly running out of Rooney to keep myself satisfied. I purposely put this off for a while, but after facing a writing slump myself and feeling pretty isolated from the world, I treated myself on paperback release day. It didn’t let me down.
Normal People is the second novel by Rooney and follows the lives of Marianne and Connell, two teenagers growing up in Ireland. They live in a small town where everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows everyone else’s business. The thing I loved most about Conversations With Friends was her portrayals of intimacy and human connection, which carried through straight into Normal People. Marianne is from a rich family of lawyers and Connell’s single-mother works as her cleaner. Whilst they go to the same school, they lead very different lives. When those lives collide and the two protagonists begin a secretive relationship, the pair have to navigate life with and without each other.
‘He makes a facial expression she can’t interpret, kind of raising his eyebrows, or frowning. When they get back to his house the windows are all dark and Lorraine is in bed. In Connell’s room he and Marianne lie down together whispering. He tells her she’s beautiful. She has never heard that before, though she has sometimes privately suspected it of herself, but it feels different to hear it from another person. She touches his hand to her breast where it hurts, and he kisses her. Her face is wet, she’s been crying. He kisses her neck. Are you okay? he says. When she nods, he smooths her hair back and says: It’s alright to be upset, you know. She lies with her face against his chest. She feels like a soft piece of cloth that is wrung out and dripping.’
I love the way Rooney discusses class in this book. One of the things I found quite alienating in Conversations With Friends was the middle-class lifestyles of the characters. Although they were students, their finances seemed to be infinite and their class didn’t seem to have any impact on their decisions or lifestyles at all. Normal People is very different in this way. Connell struggles to accept his working-class roots, highlighted to him by Marianne’s very different way of life, and when they move to the capital for university this only becomes harder to navigate. This is something I found really insightful about the story because I often have the same doubts and anxieties. Coming from a working-class town and then moving to a city for university, where you are often surrounded by the richest of the rich, is incredibly difficult. I went to Edinburgh Uni for a while and met more people from Eton than from Scotland. Now in Manchester, I am surrounded by people who dress like they are poor with the money from their parents’ trust funds. It’s a painful experience when you’re working constantly to survive, and I really liked the way Rooney explored the absurdity of this disparity in Normal People.
‘Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.’
Friendship is also another key theme in the novel, the characters often finding that their only real friends are each other or the people they grew up with in their hometowns. It can be hard to make new connections in a city, and both Marianne and Connell experience the polarities of this in the narrative. Normalcy looms over the novel, and the people in it are constantly questioning their identities- what does it mean to be normal? They are both desperate to reach whatever their ideas of normal are. Marianne begins the novel enjoying being the outcast. Although she is isolated, she revels in her ability to be different. It’s both sad and intriguing to watch her progression through the book, particularly how she navigates new friendships. Her friends encapsulate the stereotypes we all despise; the rich waxed-jacket jocks, the overbearing gossips, the creepy art boys who think taking pictures of naked girls is a replacement for a personality. Since I’m still at uni, I really enjoyed the way she explored all of these characters who I seem to be surrounded by on a daily basis. My woes were heard, as always, by Rooney’s insightful observations.
I’ll be talking some more about the class aspects of this novel, as they were my favourite, in conversation with some other class-focused reads I’ve got on the go at the moment. Thanks for reading this review. I’m sure it won’t be a necessary factor in convincing you to buy the book and read it since it’s literally the most talked-about book of the year by far. I look forward to seeing what else Sally Rooney has in store for the future. What do I do with my life now?
Here’s some links to previous posts about Rooney’s work if you’re interested to read more: