Review: Normal People, Sally Rooney

Anyone else been watching Normal People? I’ve been hooked. I read the book last year and it was the first time I got so caught up in a novel that I couldn’t even wait for my son’s nap-times.  It’s extremely rare for me to become as invested as this in what is, at first glance at least, a love story. But there’s so much more to Normal People than that. For me, and surely for many other people, the story hits a nerve about the absolute agony of trying to conform socially, of trying to ‘be normal’, while also following your own heart and desires. It’s about growing up. Hailed as one of the first truly great romances of the twenty-first century, this is One Day for the millennial generation. Warning, this review contains spoilers.

The story opens in 2011 with its two leads Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron. They go to school together but ignore each other. In the afternoons, Connell’s mother Loraine works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house. The Sheridans are a privileged family while Connell’s mother had him as a teenager and his father is unknown. Yet when Connell drives over to collect Loraine from work, the two young people come into closer contact. And closer. But with Connell a star of the school football team and Marianne a social outcast, they both conceal the connection and inevitably heartbreak ensues. Flash forward to a year later, they’re both at Trinity College Dublin and the tables have turned. Marianne becomes a social butterfly and Connor struggles to find his feet. No matter how they are pulled in different directions, their paths continue to cross. Tracking the pair over four years, Normal People considers love and relationships through the lens of class, mental health, family, social media and the world around us.

I had kind of hovered before picking this up. Sally Rooney is a writer who is really having her moment right now and whenever an author gets really zeitgeisty, I can get a bit contrary and refuse to go near them. I was buying picture books for the Astronaut and a had two books out of a 3 for 2 and picked this one as the third more or less on a whim. I found it utterly compelling. Also, although a lot of the wilder sexual exploits were foreign to me, the book left me feeling uncomfortably ‘seen’. Like Marianne, I was very socially awkward in my school years. It’s that awful adolescent mix of anxiousness and arrogance. I loathed myself. I longed to be ‘normal’. Rooney captures in harrowing detail how you can turn your face away from who and what you want in favour of social conformity. Normal People was agonising and I loved it.

Rooney is an incredibly perceptive writer, particularly about the struggles of growing up and fitting in. One of the moments I loved was when Connell looks at Marianne’s friend Peggy and muses to himself that he does not think that Peggy likes him but he is not sure why. Of course, Connell does not like Peggy either but this never strikes him as irrelevant. We are in the minds of these characters but Rooney gives us a bird’s eye view, allowing us a wisdom that they have yet to achieve. Normal People ticks so many relatable boxes about those relationships you find yourself having during your adolescent and university years. Connell clings to the approval of his school friends for security even though he knows he can share very little of what really interests him. Marianne is confused by the way that Peggy refers to them as being best friends but then continuously insults her in front of other people. Marianne finds herself forced to laugh along or else risk making things awkward. Why is it so hard to just stop and say – I don’t like this, it’s not what I want?

Navigating adolescence and beyond can be so tumultuous. A genuine connection, however flawed, is still something to be treasured. Connell and Marianne feel an affinity but they continue to misunderstand each other and miscommunicate. They are in that stage of life where you try on different versions of yourself, trying to understand what kind of person you will be. Indeed, Normal People is such a character driven novel that the romantic plot is almost secondary. Connell and Marianne are two young people trying to find their way in the world. I am reminded of Middlemarch because if you took out one of the main leads, the plot arc would still exist. Connell stands in his scruffy jeans waiting for his girlfriend to get home from the gym and Marianne sails past in formal attire on her way to a ball. This is university life, the formal events existing alongside the mundane affairs of the everyday. Their lives in this novel are often separate but that does not mean that there is no real depth of feeling.

I felt the rawness of Connell’s anxiety and how it prevented him from being true to Marianne. As the reader, I was filled with rage when he asks Rachel rather than Marianne but when I step back, I think – was I any better at that age? It takes real courage to let your most private self become public. To make yourself vulnerable. He admits to himself early in the novel that one aspect of his attraction Marianne is that he knows that what happens between them will go no further. I think about when I was fourteen and a boy who was my dear friend asked me to be his girlfriend in the middle of the lunchroom. I was utterly mortified by everyone staring and shook my head. Utter crushing betrayal of a friendship. A few years later, I did something remarkably similar to someone else. And then again a few years after that. It took a long time for me to slow down my anxiety enough to reach out for what and who I wanted. I still suck in my teeth at Connell, but I admire the way that Rooney makes clear that cruelty hurts the perpetrator as much as the victim.

Another thing that Normal People got me thinking about was just the absolute quagmire of adolescent relationships. Rachel looks on her empty relationship with Connell as quite an achievement, a literal conquest. He is only required to sit still and listen to her, but even so the fact that he does not care for her makes her victory rapidly ring hollow. That is so familiar to witness from that stage of life. Peggy pressures Marianne into remaining with Jamie because this is the relationship that fits best with their clique. A relationship is a sign of social status rather than personal feeling. Of course it’s possible that the way I am naturally quite prudish puts me at a disadvantage here. These teenagers behave with this forced casual attitude towards sex. It’s a way of looking at intimacy that I have never understood. In trying to have a genuine connection amidst all of this, Marianne and Connell feel slightly doomed.

Yet it is the burning chemistry between the two of them that gives the book its fire. You get the sense that it must be quite something to be in the room with this pair. Even when he is pretending they are not involved, Connell can’t stop watching Marianne dancing at the nightclub. Years later, even bleary-eyed, beaten up and drunk, he still has an eye for her. I loved the way they sparked off each other. Even their email exchanges were wonderful, as when they mull over the Edward Snowden case but Marianne remarks that the NSA agent who is surely reading their messages won’t understand them as he won’t know about the time that Connell didn’t ask Marianne to the Debs. There is something very special about a friendship with shared history, even if some of it is painful. Their mutual fascination is electric.

It’s strange because Normal People embodies several tropes that I have very little patience with and yet I love this book so much. Connell and Marianne have an on-off relationship which always frustrate me. On the surface, they date briefly three times with long gaps in the middle. Contrary to the tin-can image on the book’s cover, I don’t believe that a relationship keeps in that way. Also, so many of my fellow fans have commented that the story has them harking back to their own ‘One that Got Away’. I really don’t like that concept. An old boyfriend of mine has a habit of getting in touch every couple of years to see if I am single again (spoilers: I’m not). The first time this happened, a friend told me in an excited tone, “You’re his ‘one that got away'”, as if this was some badge of distinction. I had an immediate and visceral response of revulsion. I have nothing against the ex-boyfriend in question. He was (is?) a perfectly pleasant person who I wish every happiness. But I did not ‘get away’. The relationship had significant issues and we mutually called it quits. If we read or watch Normal People and finish up pining after a lost love, I really don’t think that is the point.

I think that for me, Normal People reminded me that relationships … well, as Facebook would tell us ‘It’s Complicated’. In a romantic comedy, we see the central couple overcoming every obstacle in their path to be together but in real life – things get in the way. When you’re still figuring out how to live your life, you aren’t always able to make your relationship your main event. The two leads’ contrasting backgrounds give each of them different challenges that the other fails to truly understand. It does not occur to Marianne that Connell is in need of financial support when he loses his job. With his loving mother, Connell cannot fathom Marianne’s hellish family. Every inch the country boy, Connell feels hopelessly out of his depth at Trinity while Marianne takes to it like a fish to water. While Marianne takes the Scholar award as a compliment, for Connell it is a ticket to a new life. It struck me how Marianne encouraged Connell to apply for Trinity but that she was utterly oblivious to the financial pressure that this choice would place on him. She had always had access to money and is ignorant of what it would be like to be without it. Again though, I met more than a few people like her during my own university years and that insensitivity used to really alienate me.

Like many people, I have become mildly obsessed with the BBC adaptation. Actually. Forget mildly obsessed. Just obsessed. The way it is shot is incredibly beautiful and the chemistry between the two leads is superb. Basically, I advise that you watch it. With twelve half hour episodes to play with, they’ve managed to stay fairly close to the original novel. Still, I was interested in where the variances appeared, particularly in how the series chose to iron out aspects of Marianne’s character. Onscreen, she turns down Peggy’s offer of cocaine. She is also allowed to speak Joanna’s line from the novel, expressing disapproval of Peggy’s sexual relationships with older men who have girlfriends. Small adjustments here and there but they all serve to make Marianne appear ‘nicer’. And I had slightly confused feelings about that. I had appreciated the way that Rooney had created a heroine who was not always likeable but who could still be loved.

My only other gripe with the series was that it lost some of the grime of university. I had had a vivid picture of the novel in my own mind and the rather cinematic house party where a drunk Marianne makes a play for Connell failed to quite match up. Yes, they’re a bunch of rich kids but even rich kids live in grubby places when they’re at university. When I think back to uni parties, I remember big crowds of people squeezed into tiny living rooms and kitchens. I remember the queue for the bathroom and how you would be greeted with applause on exiting if you took too long. With all the beautiful cinematography (it really is quite stunning), you lose the fact that these are all still children. Yes, they are away from their parents but they are barely one step away from playing Wendy House. It doesn’t help that there are actresses like Peggy who could probably pass for being in their early thirties.

Other than that though, it’s been a fantastic translation from the page. The lead actors really are superb, managing to make it look fairly effortless when they have a tricky task ahead of them. Normal People is a novel about Marianne and Connell’s inner thoughts but due to the medium, they have to speak a lot of these aloud. Yet it still works. I felt like the series’ incredible soundtrack did some excellent work in bringing back some of that ‘unspoken’ power. Particular favourites include the Imogen Heap ‘Hide and Seek’ clip from the second episode and Nerina Pallot’s cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ in the closing scene of episode 8. It’s quite something when two people standing next to each other looking at a painting can convey so much emotional charge. Again, it’s that sense that when the two of them are in the same room, people notice.

There were a lot of moments that worked really well on the screen. I was glad that Helen was allowed to make her point with dignity rather than being dismissed as the whiny girlfriend who left Connell when he was depressed. Let’s be honest, the girl had very valid reasons. Another big success from my perspective were the actors playing Joanna and Niall. I wanted them to be my friends too. I also felt it kind of worked seeing odious Jamie hovering at the side for several episodes before he got his way. You could really see Marianne was just one of those girls who had no idea how to function outside of a relationship. Which meant that the series’ conclusion perhaps represented her breaking away from that. Quite the positive step for her in that respect.

I also felt that the way the show tackled male mental health was not just well done but also significant. Not only through Connell but also through the glimpses we get of his friend Rob. Always ready for another pint, never wanting to go home. His desperation to be liked, his insecurity. It’s an understated tragedy played to perfection by Eanna Hardwicke but also his parents and friends, shattered by what has happened. It was also really positive to see a portrayal of therapy that felt effective. Paul Mescal does a masterful job as Connell throughout the series but the tenth episode is his knock-out punch. Again, having had my own experiences of mental health issues and therapy, this felt extremely relatable.

Still, my absolute favourite aspects of both the show and book was Connell’s mother Loraine. And then I had a Twilight Zone moment where I realised that she and I are very close in age and so I have actually reached the stage in life where I sympathise more with the lead characters’ parents than with the lead characters themselves. I really struggled to get past the point in the third episode where Connell asked Rachel to the Debs – it was just such an excruciatingly stupid thing to do – but it all got better once Loraine had her say. Every single beat of Sarah Greene’s scenes are perfect. I particularly appreciated the way that she tells Connell to pull over the car before she lays into him because even in the heat of her rage, she is responsible enough not to shout at someone while they’re driving. And the way that she greets Marianne during their Christmas together, saying ‘Look at the two of you, a little Christmas miracle’ was just so full of warmth. She is the only character who has been with the pair every step of the way and like the reader, she is pulling for them to make it work. I loved her bond with Marianne. No matter what happens with Connell, I really want to believe that Marianne has a surrogate mother figure for life in Loraine.

In lots of ways, Normal People was ‘triggering’ for me, both as a book to read and as a series to watch. It brought back a fair few memories that I normally do my best to bury. But what I love so much is Rooney’s total humanity towards her characters. We see them grow up and start to become the people they are supposed to be. Yes, they make mistakes but they are never condemned for it. As they move towards emotional maturity, we see Connell move past his cowardice and social anxiety, we see his warmth and charm; he really is the good man who Marianne thought he was. And Marianne is brittle, complicated, defensive, but we see her unfurl and start to love herself too. I really felt for her. I recognised her. I wanted to give her a hug. I also wanted to refer her to Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on the Power of Vulnerability.

Ultimately though, I hope that the murmurs of a potential Season 2 prove false. This isn’t Ten Reasons Why. I prefer the question mark. It’s like the final moment of Inception. We are not supposed to know either way what will befall the characters. I listened to the spectacular BBC podcast of the series Obsessed with Normal People and I loved Riyadh Khalaf’s prediction that they will reunite, buy a big house, have a few kids and then ‘gardening, gardening, gardening, dead!’ Isn’t that the dream we all hope for? As a reader and someone who is a bit of a softie, I want Connell and Marianne to have their rainbow ending. But this is not romantic fiction. This is about normal people. And with my head, I know that for normal people, if you can’t line things up for a relationship in the here and now, it most likely isn’t meant to be and in that case you have to Let It Go. It’s just that for this story, my heart is glaring at my head and saying ‘But they’ve been through so much and they love each other!’

I am content with Rooney’s finale which tempers our knowledge of what probably happened with our hope for what might be. It’s far less savage than One Day, less melancholy even than that other infamously open-ended novel Villette. First love is painful. We may look back on it with nostalgia but more likely with regret. We may even see it as a wasted venture. But in Normal People, Connell and Marianne recognise that they have each guided the other to better things and can respectfully choose to move forward apart. That is such a beautiful gift to have. But on a brighter note, we can remember that as the book closes in 2015 with the characters still only in their very early twenties. Who knows what could lie ahead for them. I’m not even sure that Connell would have stayed in America under a Trump administration. If Sally Rooney has left their story in the hands of her readers, we are all free to decide for ourselves what came next. I think I’ll imagine Connell and Marianne’s email exchange continuing no matter where their paths wandered and that they spotted the warning signs about the coronavirus. I think that the two of them seized the opportunity with the current global pause and that they are now isolating together in Carricklea. And every day, they walk over and have a socially distanced chat to Loraine from the bottom of her driveway.

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Normal People by Sally Rooney
Published by Faber & Faber on August 28th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Literary, General, Romance, Contemporary
Pages: 304
ISBN: 9780571334667

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9 thoughts on “Review: Normal People, Sally Rooney

  1. I know this book has had wonderful reviews, and It’s probably an age thing, but I found it incredibly depressing. Nobody has any hobbies or interests, just a string of casual sexual liaisons where women are used and abused by men. If these really are normal people, to quote Maurice Chevalier, I’m glad I’m not young any more!

    1. Ha – I sort of know what you mean. I read this and Reasons to be Cheerful lately and thought to myself – seriously no regrets that I was a late bloomer in terms of my relationships. But I also think that one of the reasons why I liked it was that it represented how uncomfortable that stage of your life can be. People go on about them being the best years of your life but a lot of us spend that period seriously lacking in self-assurance and self-love and making poor decisions. Learning to be a normal person is hard work. I still see myself as comparatively young but I am sooo glad to be past my early 20s!

  2. Hey, I have been seeing this book (and series) everywhere and was, like you, instinctively apprehensive about it. Your review made me download the ebook. I skimmed through some parts because I wanted to a avoid the obvious spoilers but you write like how I think. Some sentences leaped out at me with this odd tang of visceral recognition.
    Been a regular reader and really like how you write about particular books. Good luck and hope you are safe!

    1. Really interesting article.
      I thought they were quite critical on some points but I agreed on others. I completely agree that the look as the two characters pass each other in the hallway after they had started sleeping together is quite key.
      I think the big problem there was that neither of them knew how to ‘perform’ being in a relationship. These are such intensely private feelings and yet the public sphere has an opinion. As Connell’s mother points out, if he was sleeping with her, he should have been nice to her in the public sphere. But he didn’t have the backbone to do it. It took until he was in his early 20s to know how to be with the one he loved in front of other people. Aaaaand … if I’m honest, I was pretty much the same way. It’s stuff like this which makes me so grateful that during this phase of my life, I was swept up by Christians so at least I was spared the sex part of things.
      Ohhh this book has made me think many complicated thoughts!

  3. Thanks for a great review. I had to wait to see the series until my wife had finished the book. Now that we’ve seen the whole series I’m reading the book. I find both absolute emotional rollercoasters. Both powerful, brilliant pieces of work. One thing I thought about the series was that the characters, wonderfully depicted as they are, seem in a bubble, isolated from the wider world. There was very little relation to real world issues, apart from the disparity in wealth and privilege. The book seems to be much more balanced in that respect. The other thing I found slightly hard to believe on TV was Connell’s intellectual and emotional connection with literature. In the book, it comes over much more clearly and believably. But both characters are beautifully played. Daisy Edgar-Jones should surely get a BAFTA nomination – the depth of emotion she can get across with just a look, and the transition from schoolgirl loner to popular desirable student is brilliant. And as an incurable romantic I want a second book. The separation of these two is pure cruelty – and they can surely never be totally happy in any other relationship. And you’re right about Connell’s mum. A wonderfully realised character. The scene where she hugs Marianne and says she is too good for her much-loved son is unbearably poignant.

  4. The best review I’ve read so far of this book.
    I’ve yet to read it, but have read excerpts and reviews online, whilst seeing the series twice. There will be no second series, I’m in no doubt. It was left as the author wanted it left, but in doing that it has left me crushed with no “closure”. I love your way of thinking “what happened next”. I’m soon to be 37 years old, and can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever watched a series that has touched, affected and broken me so much in my life. The leads were absolutely perfect, I’m really hoping I can enjoy the book as much (when it finally arrives!) Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    1. Oh I do hope you enjoy it! It really does hit on something I think – but I’ve been thinking about it after finishing this post and I think it captures the way that you can have these big relationships that just DESTROY you at the time when they end but then … you do move on. I’m grateful that Rooney ended it on a question mark – I read the short story ‘At the Clinic’ which this was based from and that was a much crueller ending. Deep down I know that they split up but the novel doesn’t quite make me face up to it. Either way though, I know they were ok.

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