Thursday, March 2, 2023

Review: Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Normal People, by Sally Rooney. Hogarth/PRH (2019).

I waited kind of a long time to read Normal People, but not before watching the Hulu series that I think came on in early 2020. Anyway that's when I watched it, my second pandemic Sunday-night series, something to watch while my husband had his D&D game. I didn't really like the show though I did (hate)watch the whole thing. So much angst! I loved the book though and in the end I think it was one of the actors that ruined the show for me. Rooney's writing, her attention to detail and carefully wrought insights into her characters, are what make the book so special.

Normal People is about the romantic relationship between two Irish young people, Connell and Marianne, in 2010s Ireland. It's set between their hometown of Carricklea and Dublin where the two attend Trinity College. I lived in Dublin in 1995 and anyone who knows me knows the country is dear to my heart. I typically say "I love Ireland so much it hurts" and reading a novel set there in a recognizable era is a treat. One of my many passages I underlined in the book:

Dublin is extraordinarily beautiful to [Marianne] in wet weather, the way grey stone darkens to black, and rain moves over the grass and whispers on slick roof tiles. Raincoats glistening in the undersea color of street lamps. Rain silver as loose change in the glare of traffic.

Brings me right back. 


Connell and Marianne start sleeping together in secondary school. Connell is a cool kid, a footballer, and Marianne is a social outcast, a wealthy girl in a working class town and a nerd to boot. Connell's mother works as a cleaner in Marianne's house, if the social dynamic were not otherwise clear. Connell keeps his relationship with her a secret; Marianne knows this and accepts it, thinks it's what she deserves. When they both wind up at Trinity their dynamic is reversed; Marianne finds that her social class and intelligence allow her to fit right in while Connell struggles for his footing. Neither wants to be open about their relationship, past or present.

They continue to circle around each other, sometimes together and sometimes with other people and Rooney seamlessly and skillfully alternates their points of view as they grow up and work out what it means to be healthy, what it means to be normal, and what it means to be in love. Is it dating- hanging out with someone because they tick a box, are cool, acceptable, cute and fun? Or is it something else, an invisible tether that runs between you and another, something that binds you to them, maybe forever.

Rooney goes to some dark places seeking answers to these questions and others in this insightful, challenging book that readers might find triggering for any number of reasons. I did. Some readers will simply not care about these two and their issues and that's fine too. Even though there were no big surprises (the adaptation is very faithful to the book) I really loved the book and will return to those underlined passages every now and then.

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