‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney: book review
The first thing to say about this book is that it has won a clutter of literary awards, as the back of the book tells us.
I don’t think I have ever simultaneously enjoyed and disliked a book so much.
The main characters are painfully annoying and endearing at the same time. Marianne and Connell are a modern version of the star-crossed, “from opposite sides of the track” trope. (Not that they are really a couple, as we are all-too-frequently reminded. They are on-again-off-again throughout the story with irritating frequency.)
Marianne and Connell get to know each other because Connell’s mother is a cleaner who works in Marianne’s palatial house. This income gap is beautifully drawn in little details such as “[His mother] put a box of own-brand cornflakes in the press.” The two main characters first connect as teenagers in the kitchen of that house, in an interaction that is well crafted in its adolescent awkwardness and hiatuses. From this point on, chance meetings over several years see them repeatedly disconnecting and reconnecting.
Marianne’s world is privileged and rotten. She is the broken product of that world. Connell comes from a working-class, single-parent family managing in straitened circumstances. He is handsome, and appears confident, well-adjusted and popular.
The pair deal with such painful issues as physical and psychological abuse within families and relationships, class tensions, depression, self-loathing, isolation, alienation, loneliness in the young … the list goes on. It becomes increasingly clear as the story goes on that these people are damaged, possibly irreparably. That’s fine; damaged characters are the lifeblood of novels. The problem arises when you realise that they are not going to change.
There’s a lot to love in this book: the nuances of the conversations and emotional dynamics between the two characters are incredibly well observed. As she did so successfully in her 2017 smash hit debut, Conversations with Friends, Rooney uses extreme detail on facial expression, thought and movement to illustrate the tiny, unspoken shifts that characterise a relationship. For example, this section when Connell works himself up to telling Marianne that he won’t be staying Dublin for the summer:
“Yeah, he said. I’m going to have to move out of Niall’s place.
When? said Marianne.
Pretty soon. Next week, maybe.
Her face hardened, without displaying any particular emotion. Oh, she said. You’ll be going home, then.
He rubbed at his breastbone then, feeling short of breath. Looks like it, yeah, he said.”
Rooney also excels at pacing (in part, using the movement and facial expression referred to above) and at subtly showing time both passing and appearing to stand still. This sentence stands out for me: “They are driving past the football grounds now. A thin veil of rain begins to fall on the windshield, and Connell turns the wipers on, so they scrape out a mechanical rhythm on their voyage from side to side.”
The people who populate Marianne’s moneyed world are drawn as despicable in various ways. Their characterisation is well executed; we are intended to detest them and we do.
A minor but viscerally affecting aspect of the book is how Rooney depicts the time wasted in school life. This is beautifully drawn in all its pain: “It stayed dry for the match. They had been brought there for the purpose of standing at the sidelines and cheering” (page 11).
However, these micro-details of Rooney’s often miss their mark. If you’re going to describe someone deciding not to take off their coat because they’ll be leaving again in a minute (page 185), it needs to be necessary; it needs to move the narrative forward. Otherwise, it’s just boring.
Another gripe I have is that we are never given any proper insights into the source of Marianne’s unpopularity in school. We are told that she wears terrible shoes, is seen as ugly, wears dirty clothes, doesn’t wear makeup, doesn’t make any effort with her appearance. We are given to understand that these things are at least part of the reason for her lack of friends. She is very clever and doesn’t hide it; she doesn’t court popularity. But none of this is enough to explain the degree of ostracisation and meanness that she is subject to by her school mates. Since their time in school occupies a good part of the book, it is fair to expect more depth on this aspect of Marianne’s character. It would have made for a more coherent narrative overall.
As for Connell’s character, he ignores Marianne in school along with the others. We are never told explicitly, but we are given to understand that he wants to avoid being tainted by association. This streak of meanness in him – vanity even – is never satisfactorily incorporated into his character throughout the rest of the book. He fares somewhat better on the character development front in that he eventually goes to therapy. He doesn’t seem to benefit from it, sadly.
Another open question is, when they get to college, how do their roles become reversed? Marianne is suddenly popular and beautiful, while Connell is friendless and alone. This new dynamic is referred to but not substantially backed up. Not only that, but despite their new relative popularities, nothing changes in their relationship; she is still subservient, he still dominates.
Speaking of which, one of the things that kept me from warming to Marianne is her unchanging submissiveness, to Connell and others (which in a later stage of the book leads her into a violent and humiliating situation). I say unchanging because we expect character development in a novel. Marianne does not grow or mature. She literally says as much herself in the second-last sentence of the book: “I’ll always be here.” Nothing has changed from when we first met them.
The second-last paragraph seems to be an attempt to tie things up in a bow and convince us that there has been character development: “They’ve done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another.” However, for this to be stated explicitly doesn’t mean it has actually happened here.
There is a sort of climax in the novel, but it’s so understated, and not entirely news, that you might miss it. There’s nothing to spoil about the end.
In her outstanding talks on writing, Claire Keegan has said (I’m paraphrasing) that the writer has a contract with the reader, and the writer must fulfil that contract. In other words, if we see a smoking gun during a story, we must be told what happens to that gun (this principle is also known as “Chekov’s gun”). Similarly, if a writer sets up two characters with a problem (that they can’t connect properly despite loving each other), something must happen to resolve or at least change that problem. This contract is not honoured in Normal People.