“People can really change one another,” Marianne, a young Trinity College student, muses one morning towards the end of Normal People. It’s a simple statement, perhaps even a naïve one, but it perfectly captures the nature of Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel, which at its core is about the ways our lives are shaped by the choices and comments and behaviours of those we surround ourselves with.
Normal People, like Rooney’s debut novel Conversations With Friends, isn’t driven by a unique or complex plot. It’s about a relationship between two young students, Marianne and Connell, who, because of their youth and different upbringings, struggle to communicate effectively. Over the course of several years they try and fail to establish a normal relationship, floundering awkwardly because of immaturity and fear, yet maintaining a deep sense of friendship throughout the ordeal. What sets Normal People apart from other stories of young love is Rooney’s unique ability to write relatable characters and her knack for analyzing complex situations in simple yet beautifully strung together words.
The central relationship in Normal People is precarious, both because of the youth of its subjects and the socially constricting world they live in. Marianne meets Connell because his mother, a lower-class and deeply kind woman, cleans her family’s massive house. Marianne’s upbringing, while undeniably privileged, was far less happy than Connell’s because of her mothers’ frigidity and her brothers’ abusive tendencies. In high school Marianne has lower social standing than Connell. Other students feel she is aloof and strange. Because of this Connell refuses to publicly acknowledge the close relationship he has with her. When the pair head to university in Dublin, their social positions shift. Marianne effortlessly fits in amongst the well-off, highly educated students at Trinity College while Connell struggles to relate to his new peers. Over the course of their university educations, Marianne and Connell’s relationship fluctuates as they grow and learn and change, and yet their lives remain intertwined, sometimes with negative consequences.
Rooney’s hyper-realistic depictions of youth and romance in the modern world can be painful to read. She’s able to capture in graphic detail the hardships of building and maintaining relationships in the digital age. Normal People revolves around two people who could be in contact at any moment imaginable and yet constantly fail to adequately express their feelings and thoughts to one another. Their most clear and honest conversations take place not in person but over email, where somehow the barriers of class and gender that divide them have less power. There isn’t another author alive who so flawlessly utilizes the internet as a means of storytelling as Rooney.
Normal People has garnered massive international praise. It was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and earlier this year Rooney became the youngest ever novelist to land the Costa Award’s best novel category. Booksellers in the UK have even been stashing stores of the novel behind their check-out counters because of the number of shoppers coming in asking for a copy. Rooney has clearly struck a chord with her audience and found a unique way to connect.
There are clear reflections of the authors’ life in her story. Rooney, like Connell and Marianne, studied at Trinity College. Like her two lead characters she was elected as a Trinity Scholar – one of the highest academic achievements in Ireland – and it isn’t hard to imagine that like them she had to grapple with the realities of being an incredibly smart, talented person struggling to figure out what that means in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps her deep connection to the story is part of what makes it feel so real and relatable.
Normal People will resonate with readers because it will remind them of at least one of their own young relationships that flamed out due to pride or miscommunication or fear. Readers will be able to see themselves either in Marianne’s emotional confusion or Connell’s awkward conversation. They’ll feel represented and understood as the main character’s heartfelt stories unfold on the page before them.