Yes, 'Normal People' Is As Good As Everyone Says It Is
Welcome to Must Reads, where we review our favourite novels, memoirs, non-fiction books and more. For this instalment, we are reviewing Sally Rooney's Normal People, which you can shop now in The Reads. Collection.
In 2018, Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People was published to immediate, widespread critical acclaim. It was a year or so after the release of her first book Conversations With Friends, which had also made waves for its depictions of friendship, and sex, and the way in which the two can intermingle and muddy the waters and shift the boundaries or even set up new ones.
Normal People occupies similar territory. We meet its two main characters in their last year of high school in a small town in Ireland. Marianne is wealthy but deeply uncool, smart but unable to translate that intelligence into people skills, the kind of young woman who hasn’t quite grown into herself yet. Unlike Marianne, Connell is the golden boy of high school – good at rugby, good at parties, good at women. He might have come from a poorer background, but that hasn’t stopped him becoming one of the most popular kids in the grade.
The connection between Marianne and Connell starts at Marianne’s house. Connell’s mum is her cleaner, and one day when Connell arrives to pick up his mam, he has a conversation with the classmate he hasn’t had much to do with before that. The two discover a shared taste for literature, for philosophical conversations and for each other. Soon, they’re locked into a sort-of-relationship. They’re sleeping together but they’re not actually ‘together’ outside of one of their bedrooms. Because Connell doesn’t want Marianne’s social status to impact his own. Which means that, while they’re as close as two people can be behind closed doors, at school Connell pretends that Marianne doesn’t exist.
This dynamic carries through the novel – occasionally in reverse – which is told in specific vignettes and moments over time as Connell and Marianne grow up, go to university, and try to navigate the ups and downs of their relationship. Sometimes they’re together, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, the power dynamics between them shift. Sometimes it’s Connell who is on top – others, it’s Marianne. What is unchanged in every chapter of the book, as it moves from Carricklea to Dublin to Sweden and back to Dublin again is the connection between our star-crossed young lovers. They can’t get much right, this pair. They don’t always know how to talk to each other, or to their parents, or to communicate what they want and need, but there’s one thing they do know: there’s something there between them. Something. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.
One of the things that makes Normal People resonate is that the book is about, on the most part, a couple of very normal people. The reason why the book, and later the television show, feels so powerfully relatable is that there are elements of Connell and Marianne in all of us. We might never have had that same confusing, terrifying connection with someone so young. But most of us have been through some form of what Connell and Marianne go through. We’ve liked someone and weren’t quite sure if they liked us back. We’ve changed, and had our relationships with the people we love change, as we get older. We’ve struggled with mental health. We’ve had difficult relationships fall apart. We’ve found other new things to latch onto. We’ve battled through miscommunications and made missteps.
Rooney writes about it all with searing insight and keen observations about these two people and the way they see the world around them, and each other. The book is not interested in much outside of their relationship – even Connell and Marianne’s respective families take a backseat as the book goes on. What does matter are the ways Connell and Marianne perceive each other and themselves, and how this shifts in ways both subtle and obvious over the four years in which the novel is set.
Normal People is really a study of two characters, wrapped up in each other. We learn so much about both Connell and Marianne not only through what their inner monologues tell us, but by how they interact with each other through different chapters. Yes, in the sex scenes, that Rooney writes with such clear-eyed directness and an understanding of the way sex is woven into ideas of power, control and sense of self. Rooney writes about power in different ways too, like when Connell and Marianne attend a pool party together at university and realise how the dynamic in their relationship has changed. But then there’s also the insight that the book has into these characters when they’re not together. When they’re alone. There are stretches of the novel in which Marianne and Connell are separated, but thinking about each other constantly. Young love, right?
Here at Bed Threads, we love the way Rooney writes and sees the world. We love how she captures that particular feeling of being young, and in love, and wanting nothing more in the world than this person you love to love you back at the exact same, unbearable decibel that you love them. She did it in Conversations With Friends, her first book, and she does it in Normal People too. Both of these books are stocked as part of our Reads. Collection, that’s how much we loved them both. And we’ll be reading whatever it is she writes next. Guaranteed.