Normal People, anything but simple
What is a normal person or relationship? These are the central questions of Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People that was nominated for the Booker award.
Rooney tells the story of the complex relationship between two small town Irish teenagers Marianne and Connell, who we first meet in their final year of high school. They are on the cusp of adulthood and getting ready to leave home for the first time.
Marianne is the daughter of a lawyer and Connell is the son of a single mother who cleans for Marianne’s family. At high school, Connell is popular, while Marianne is ostracized. When we first meet them, Connell and Marianne have embarked on a relationship that Connell does not want anyone at school to know about because he is afraid of what his friends will say.
Marianne embraces her role as a social outcast and is willing to keep things between her and Connell secret. After their first kiss Connell says, “Don’t go telling people in school about this, ok?” To which Marianne replies, “Like I would talk to anyone at school.”
Both Connell and Marianne are smart, articulate and bound for Trinity University in Dublin. When they get there, things shift. Marianne is now popular and meeting people who are from similar affluent backgrounds while Connell is seen as an outsider and viewed as being a bit provincial by his peers. At the same time Marianne and Connell are still drawn to one another and continue to be in each other’s orbit.
This all may sound like a fairly simple plot found in many young adult novels, however, it is anything but. These are two highly intelligent people who slowly gain self-awareness through their interactions with themselves and others. They are weighed down by insecurities and anxieties and are struggling to find their place in the world while trying to make sense of their relationship.
Connell is prone to fits of depression and is acutely aware of his social status. He sees himself as just wanting “to be normal, to conceal the parts of himself that he found shameful and confusing.” At the same time he is disturbed by the degree of power he has over Marianne who is prone to do anything he asks of her.
Marianne suffers verbal and physical abuse at home from a dismissive mother and an aggressive brother. This leads her into relationships that are often abusive and causes her to doubt her self-worth.
This is Rooney’s second novel and it was nominated for the Booker prize. She is 27 years old and has been described as, “the Salinger of the Snapchat generation.”.
Rooney excels at dialogue and the exchanges between Marianne and Connell are insightful and at times heartbreaking. Over the course of the novel their relationship evolves as they become more mature and self-aware. We see them interact with other people and we witness the relationships, some toxic, that they get involved in.
Throughout the book Connell and Marianne enter and leave other relationships, each one providing more insights into their characters and personalities. At the same time they are always connected, helping one another grow and develop.
The novel ends on a hopeful note when Marianne reflects on her relationship with Connell, “He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her… They’ve done a lot of good for each other.” That may be as normal as anyone can hope for.