Sally Rooney’s much acclaimed debut Conversation With Friends just didn’t appeal to me. It felt like a book aimed at someone half my age, which it probably was (Rooney is 27). Her latest book, Normal People, on the other hand, had me utterly hooked. It’s a wonderful old-fashioned love story but with a modern twist that shows you what it’s like to be young today. It also somehow transported my back to my own fumbling first experiences with love. Highly recommended.
Marianne and Connell are from vastly different backgrounds, while still inhabiting the same world. Connell’s mum, Lorraine, is Marianne’s mum’s housekeeper. Marianne’s mum, a successful lawyer, is judgemental and absent while Lorraine is warm and present. Marianne is unmoored from her dysfunctional family, whereas Connell is close to his single mum. Connell and Marianne are in the same class at school but while he is sporty and popular, Marianne is a nerdy outsider who never strives to be liked. Both do exceptionally well at school.
Against the odds, Marianne and Connell strike up a secret, friends-with-benefit type of relationship. Marianne is not the kind of girl the popular, good-looking Connell would admit to date, so the relationship remains secret until Connell betrays Marianne. They’re both admitted to Trinity College Dublin and once there, the tables are turned. Whereas Connell is a fish out of water amongst the pretentious, privileged kids, Marianne fits right in.
Their relationship ebbs and flows. They can’t live without each other, but struggle to find a way to commit. They date other people but find themselves circling back to one another. Normal People is a compelling portrayal of all-consuming first love. The misunderstandings, miscommunications, jealousy, betrayals, break-ups and reconciliations, it’s all here. And it will take you back to the self-centred bubble existence of your early 20s.
I also loved the way Normal People is structured, with the perspective alternating between the two protagonists and with leaps in time that seamlessly take you back and forth. Slowly, dark secrets emerge. Our protagonists are instantly believable, nuanced and lovable without being predictable. I found myself racing through to find the answer to the questions: will they or won’t they? I’ll leave it to you to find out.
Normal People by Sally Rooney is published by Faber & Faber, 288 pages.