It’s very hard to miss this novel in the book community – not only has it won ALL the awards, it is also very well-loved among the people who read and love Literary Fiction. The novel is definitely huge, and it has traversed into the lives of other readers who don’t read a lot of Literary Fiction, and it has been so interesting to compare these different reviewers opinions of this novel. For me personally, this book sounds like it was written for me. It’s a deep dive into the relationship between two people, and it focuses solely on their dynamic, which we all know is the one thing that ties together all my favorite books. So I knew I was going to read this eventually and I am happy to report that it did, in fact, work for me.
Normal People follows Marianne and Connell, who live in the same town and go to the same school, and who start a relationship while they are still in school. Throughout the novel, we follow them through high school and college, at different points in their life and also their relationship. The book explores them as characters, but also their relationship as a single entity.
If there is one takeaway for me from this novel, it’s the fact that Sally Rooney has a deep understanding of people and the way they work and interact. She has an uncanny ability to portray the interpersonal – it not only feels authentic but resonates with the deep truth of what it means to be human and what it means to coexist with other people. Through Marianne and Connell’s relationship, Rooney manages to show us how to people, who love and care about each other, can also fail at not only showing that, but fail at communicating at all. It’s at times frustrating, but the thing that is frustrating isn’t the relationship per se, it’s the realization that this is a very realistic portrayal of human interactions.
One of the reasons the novel is so successful at showing these interactions is its structure. Normal People is told through alternating chapters, both from Marianne and Connell’s points of view. However, the chapters are always separated in time by a few months, which allows for a really interesting narrative structure. We get to see both of them not only from their own perspective, but also from the other’s perspective too. It’s fascinating to see how one person can interpret the action of the other in a completely different way than they intended. Not only is this true for a certain action or a thing someone says, it’s also true for the person as a whole – the way Connell sees Marianne and the things she does is very different than the way she explains and sees herself. The novel explores the fact that other people have their own interpretations and preconceived notions of ourselves at all times, and the way you present to the outside might be viewed differently depending on the person you are interacting with. I think this is such an important and integral part of being human, and it’s done exquisitely well here. There’s a bit towards the end where Connell says how he cannot help Marianne, but then we switch to Marianne and her saying how much they helped each other and how they became better people for knowing each other, and I think that perfectly encompasses this book and the things it tries to do. And it succeeds at it brilliantly.
The time jumps also allow for a certain detachment of the narrator from the events – they relay them not at the time that they are happening, but after the fact, which adds another layer to the overall impression Marianne makes of Connell and vice versa. Not only is the event itself tainted by a person’s perception, it’s also the time distance that adds that further distorts the events.
I saw a lot of reviews who complain about the miscommunication in this novel (especially from people who I know read romance). And it’s true – one of the biggest pet peeves in the community is when writers use miscommunication as a plot device. And it’s true that this book relies solely on the miscommunication between Marianne and Connell. However, I did not have an issue with this in general, because I feel like that was the whole point of this novel. The miscommunication drives the book forward, yes, because the book sets out to show us how people can fail to communicate with each other, and how such failure leads to failure of relationships. Their lack of communication hinders not on some trivial thing – it’s set on the foundation of who they are as people. From the beginning, their relationship is hindered by their social status, their class differences, their different upbringings, by gender roles, and the huge power balance between them. When the failure to communicate with the other person goes so deep, it’s not a plot device anymore, it’s the basis of being human in the world.
There are claims of Sally Rooney being the voice of this generation, and while I don’t know about all that (I am not nearly informed nor smart enough to get to such conclusions), but I can say that I deeply enjoyed Rooney’s writing style. She has a really detached writing voice, that is also really clever and perceptive. I feel like she can look at these really awful and tragic scenes with detachment but also with real emotional complexity and honesty. Her writing translated as if it has come to terms with the fact that the world is shitty, but also as if it cares about this shitty world and these shitty people deeply. Which you know, relatable. I cannot wait to read more of her stuff, because I am leaving Normal People really freaking impressed.
I hope I managed to convey in previous paragraphs how brilliant I found this book and how impressed I was with it. But, I mentioned this while I was reading on Goodreads, but this book made me so deeply anxious. And I am not an anxious person at all. But it was a frustrating reading experience that really unsettled me, and made me not feel good. It might be due to the fact that in the past two years, reading became a comfort thing, rather than a thing that challenges me, but I was just so ridden with anxiety while I read this, and I don’t see myself going back to this novel and rereading it and loving it. I can’t say this was an enjoyable reading experience, although I did ultimately love this, and I think it will probably make my best of the year list.
One of the reasons I was so anxious reading this is the fact that both Connell and Marianne really need therapy. And while I feel like Connell’s depression and his issues are addressed and dealt with, I don’t think Marianne’s were. I had a lot of issues with how her problems were made almost factual, and it kind of unsettled me. Not that these issues aren’t a fact for a lot of people, they are, I just don’t like how the narrative treats her grievances and mental health issues. And again, this isn’t really the book’s point – it could well be what the author intended. But for me personally, it made the reading experience unenjoyable.
I cannot recommend this enough. I think it’s a smart, insightful and accomplished piece of writing, that portrays the human experience so incredibly well. All the issues I had with this were kind of personal, and not the book’s fault, and I feel like Sally Rooney is a really brilliant writer. If you had this on your radar, be sure to pick it up ASAP!
I would love to hear from you – have you read Normal People? What were your thoughts on it? Have you read her other novel? Let me know in the comments!
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