Following the commercial and critical success of Conversations with Friends, young Irish writer Sally Rooney has returned with a second novel already hailed by some as a ‘future classic’. Normal People follows the lives of two young individuals, from their last year in high school to their final years at university.
The novel is set in Ireland and the two main characters are Marianne and Connell. Marianne is intelligent but decidedly uncool. She does not aspire to fit in and that makes her an anomaly; freakish even, to her teenage peers. Marianne is from a wealthy household and her relationship with Connell begins with her family’s employment of his mother as their cleaner. Connell is handsome, top of the class and a star on the football field. He’s popular but also cripplingly aware of just how quickly that could change if the town found out about his growing feelings towards Marianne.
Normal People is a four year journey through young-adulthood. (Spoiler) Though Marianne and Connell separate early on, they seem unable to stay away from each other for any real length of time. In its final pages, Rooney writes: ‘All these years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.’ Marianne and Connell unquestionably love and care for each other. The characters themselves would probably say they were ‘great friends’. But with all their scholarship-winning ideas and understandings about the world, they cannot seem to grasp what the reader can clearly see: two people experiencing all the pain and wonder of a great love. Rooney’s two protagonists are gifted, complex, headed toward greatness, and at the same time they are extremely ordinary; they have massive struggles with communication and presumably that is the inspiration for the novel’s title.
Rooney’s novel is an easy read – easy in the sense that her prose is fluid and conversational. Reading it could feel less like processing paragraphs and more like calmly observing two lives. Rooney has a way of writing that touches the reader when they least expect it. She is at her most profound through dialogue and through her characters’ thoughts. Rooney does not need tragedies to punch her audience in the guts. She does it with a subtle modesty that confirms her as a literary giant of her generation.
Normal People is a serious examination of what it means to be a young adult in the twenty-first century western world, but the same time, it’s also a page-turner!