Sally Rooney’s Normal People seems to be something of a phenomenon, praised not just in the book world but outside it. For me, that says little about a book’s quality. Both good books and bad books break through, and popularity says little either way about whether I will or won’t like a book. It does sometimes pique my curiosity, though, and that was the case here.
The novel tells the story of two young Irish people, Marianne and Connell, who grew up in the same small town, in different social classes and social circles. Marianne is rich but not well liked. Connell is working class and popular. Connell’s mother cleans house for Marianne’s family, so the two end up seeing each other outside school, where social pressures keep them apart. And a secret sexual relationship begins.
Over time, and after they both end up at Trinity College, they drift apart and back together, sometimes open about their relationship and sometimes secretive. They seem unable to ever honestly express their feelings to each other, as both fear the consequences of being open about their love. And that’s if it is love. I don’t know that either character really understands their own feelings. There is certainly love there, though.
Underneath the basic plot are layers that may reveal why these two have so much trouble coming together. Marianne is abused at home, and the way that affects her relationships feels a little too on the nose (but perhaps also realistic). Connell’s worries about money and his need for a scholarship creates difficulties that are mostly logistical (he has to take a job at home over the summer, for instance), but I also think it adds to his insecurities. In both cases, I appreciated that Rooney keeps these pieces of the characters’ backgrounds as undercurrents, rather than having them talk openly about them, but I also wonder if they’re too far under the surface. The class problem in particular is easy to forget about.
I also found myself wondering whether these two really are good for each other or whether they are merely convenient. In the end, I think it’s a little of both. They do genuinely care for each other, and, although they slip up sometimes in the ways they care, those feelings generally lead them well. But I also don’t think they are necessary for each other. If they don’t maintain their relationship, whatever sort of relationship it is, they both will be okay.
As for whether I loved the book, I really don’t know. I enjoyed reading it and cared about the characters and the push and pull between them. But other books about people this age have impressed me more. (The Idiot by Elif Batumen comes to mind.) The timeline jumps and flashbacks within them sometimes exasperated me, as I would lose track of when I was inside a flashback. I also felt at a distance from the characters, as is sometimes the case in contemporary fiction. I wonder if, by keeping the characters’ deeper motivations under the surface, Rooney creates too much distance.
Anyway, I’d read another Rooney novel but I’m not running out to do so. I don’t have a strong sense of whether Conversations with Friends is more or less well-liked than this book, but I’m curious as to what other think, so let me know if you’ve read either (or both) or seen some good writing about the Rooney phenomenon. I’m still piecing my thoughts together.