Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

I loved the way this book begins, because I identified very much with Marianne, one of its two narrators.  Marianne and Connell are two teens in a small town in Ireland.  Marianne is smart, independent, and proud, but has no friends at school.  Connell is popular and outgoing, and like many teens he worries a lot about what his friends think of him.  Marianne is wealthy; Connell is the son of her family’s maid.

Connell and Marianne are drawn to each other, only Marianne isn’t someone Connell can be seen dating.  She knows the other kids at school don’t like her, so she’s willing to be with Connell in secret.  As you might imagine that doesn’t work for very long.  This beginning to their relationship is heartbreaking and powerful.  It could easily feel stereotypical, but Rooney thoughtfully explores many layers of awkwardness in a teenage relationship.

When Connell and Marianne go to college, the entire relationship dynamic shifts.  Marianne feels at home in college, while Connell feels he’s lost his friends and his identity.  As her confidence grows, she’s seen (by others and herself) as increasingly beautiful.

It’s an interesting love story, as the two come together and break apart.  It’s painful at times, even as they betray each other, see other people, and grow in different directions.  They feel a sense of completeness with the other, a feeling of being “at home” with the other person that felt very real to me. And yet each of them has to struggle with their own problems and insecurities.  Marianne, in particular, comes from an abusive home and struggles to feel she’s worthy of love.  Connell was raised by a loving mother, but struggles financially and doesn’t see himself as successful.

They talk about the novels he’s reading, the research she studies, the precise historical moment that they are currently living in, the difficulty of observing such a moment in process. At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it suprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her.

Connell and Marianne are sympathetic but there were things I didn’t like about them, and that’s okay with me.  Both could be self-centered, and Connell seemed at times willfully blind to the abuse Marianne suffered at home.  They have a maddening failure to communicate, but that’s probably realistic in a struggling, complicated relationship.  These are characters who seem older than their years at times, but they are still very young.

One thing bothered me about the book, which was the way Rooney conflates Marianne’s issues related to abuse (e.g., inability to trust, to have loving relationships, to feel worthy of being loved) with sexual submission and S&M.  I have no expertise in this topic, but it seems to me that there are plenty of adults in healthy relationships who enjoy consensual submission and S&M.  Exploring those things does not make you a victim or mean you’re in an abusive relationship.  I could be wrong, but I just don’t know that it’s accurate to characterize sexual submission as an effect of childhood or domestic abuse. I’d be curious to hear what others thought.

I loved Rooney’s writing, and found the book heartbreaking at times, slow-moving at other times, and thoughtful throughout.  I liked the way it ended as well.

Normal People is on the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize.  It’s one of only three books on the list I’ve read (Circe and An American Marriage are the other two).  The shortlist will be announced April 29, 2019.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Crown Publishing.  The book publishes in the U.S. on April 16, 2019.


  5 comments for “Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

  1. Col
    April 16, 2019 at 1:50 am

    I loved this book too. I think I identified a bit with Connell but to be honest it’s been so long since I was the ages he is in the book that might just be my imagination. Like you I found their faults and the frustration of their communication ( or lack of it) part of what made them so real as characters. I read the S and M stuff slightly differently to you – I thought it was suggesting that when you grow up without love it can become hard to accept anyone can ever love you so you are either open to someone using you for their own ends or if you find it hard to accept someone genuinely wants to be with you then you create reasons for them to be there – in her case the S and M. Overall though thought it was the best book I read in whole of last year

    • April 16, 2019 at 1:51 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I love a good character driven story like this one. And I can see your interpretation of the S&M, although I was troubled by the depiction of the abusive boyfriend.

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