Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person's life - a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us - blazingly - about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney's second novel breathes fiction with new life.
Marianne and Connell meet in the last year of school, when Connell's single mother goes to clean at Marianne's house. She's from a wealthy background but socially awkward and not well liked, he's poor but popular. They find themselves drawn to each other and he sleeps with her, but won't acknowledge her in public. Connell doesn't see a problem with this, and Marianne goes along with his 'rules', until he pointedly asks another girl to the Debs. 'He didn't do anything bad,' he excuses himself. 'He had never tried to delude her into thinking she was socially acceptable; she'd deluded herself.' They stop seeing each other, but end up studying at the same college, where she becomes the popular one, and Connell feels left out.
So what, you're thinking, they're only teenagers, they'll grow up and realise they love each other. Connell will stop treating her like dirt, and realise that Marianne's emotional vulnerability - thanks to a gaslighting mother and abusive brother - should make him protective of her, not proprietary. Nope! They continue their awkward relationship through college, sleeping together but not really liking or respecting each other, while Marianne feigns disinterest and Connell finds new and subtle ways to put her down. He even thinks about hitting her, at one point, knowing that she would let him! Marianne also has relationships with 'psychopaths', as Connell calls them, who are simply more direct in subjecting her.
I could sympathise with both characters to start with, Marianne because of her family and Connell because of his inferiority complex, but they don't grow! They don't change! Marianne doesn't come into herself at college, Connell never realises what he has in Marianne, at least not enough to treat her better, and even at the end of the story, they're still trapped in the same vicious circle of gratitude and pity. And they have pretentious discussions about everything but how they really feel, which drag on for ages.
I wanted to like Marianne and Connell, and they did stay with me, but there is just no point to their pain.
I was a bit surprised after reading Normal People that it had been longlisted for the Booker Prize – not because of the quality of the writing which is superb but because of the subject content. The characters begin as teenagers and move through their university years, drinking and having sex and being involved in some things that my mind had as not really Booker material. But I’m glad they those to recognise this work and if you’re the type to shun prize listed novels – don’t ignore this. There is so much mood and controlled angst in this new adult novel that it offers any reader a lot to ponder over.
The two main characters are Marianne and Connell. They are both in the same class at school but that’s where the similarity ends. Marianne is rich but shunned at school for being weird. Connell’s mum cleans for Marianne’s family but Connell is one of the most popular boys in town. One day Marianne and Connell get talking and that’s that. A relationship is begun that will follow them into their twenties and shape both their futures. At university, the tables are turned in Connell’s eyes. Marianne is super popular and he’s the odd one out, a poor country boy. Over the years, their relationship is tumultuous, ranging from romantic to friendship. Both try new relationships and new things, but they are always drawn back to each other. It’s an intense relationship but an equal one. Both characters lead each other to new ground, but never to the detriment of each other.
Marianne and Connell are like chalk and cheese. Marianne’s family hate her for reasons that are never explained (and which frustrated me at times. Marianne does not invite sympathy but it would have been useful to me as to why she is so stoic). Marianne is convinced she is damaged goods and takes a path that exploits herself as a bad person. The reader knows that she isn’t but I felt that a little more background could have helped me understand a bit more about her. Connell is very close to his mother, who had him as a teenager, and she is also his mentor in life. She offers him advice without overcrowding him but ultimately lets him make his own mistakes. Where Marianne is mysterious, Connell is straightforward which is possibly his downfall. At university, he initially expects others to be as clear cut (which they aren’t). This heightens Connell’s insecurities about his place in the world. The back and forth of their relationship is intense, with each rescuing the other at their time of need.
But it is Sally Rooney’s writing that really makes Normal People. In less talented hands, this book could be dismissed as another new adult romance. Rooney makes the emotions leap off the page, grabbing the reader and taking them into Connell and Marianne’s world, but refraining from sending them completely down the rabbit hole. This distance is necessary to keep the story on an even keel but sometimes I wanted to fall headfirst into it. It’s a great twist on the coming of age story and I look forward to Sally Rooney’s next novel.
I was so excited to read this book because Sally Rooney’s other book, Conversations with Friends, is one of my all time favorite books. Because of that, I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, this book didn’t quite live up to them.
There were a lot of things that I did like about this book. One being that I loved the writing style. It’s very beautiful in an understated way. I also have no issues whatsoever with the no quotation mark format that Rooney utilizes. I think it fits in well with her style.
I also loved how the story delves deep into the characters and the psychology of Marianne and Connell’s relationship. It felt very intimate.
Additionally, there were some passages that I really loved. On pages 71-72, I loved the paragraph describing Connell’s love of literature. Then on page 100-101, I loved the paragraph about Marianne and Connell’s discussions after sex. These two paragraphs are just some of the many examples of the beauty of her writing.
On the flip side, what I didn’t like was that the story wasn’t that interesting. In Conversations with Friends, I loved the premise and things actually happened. In this book, there was just a lot of going back and forth between the characters. They would get together, then they would split, then they would get back together. It just didn’t interest me as much. I also wasn’t satisfied by the ending. It fell flat for me.
Overall, this book didn’t live up to my expectations, but don’t let that stop you from reading it for yourself.
I enjoyed this much more than Conversations With Friends, which is written in a similarly introspective, pared-back style but features a cast of almost wholly unlikable characters. Normal People was so much easier to get into because I found Marianne and Connell to be relatable in many ways, and I ultimately found myself rooting for them to get some sort of happy ending.
I also lost count of the number of phrases and passages that expressed things a lot of us think or feel, but struggle to turn into words - Rooney really has a quietly intelligent way with words.
This isn't an easy read in terms of some of the topics explored, but it's definitely one to race through in a day or two!
"Outside her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake."
"Connell hasn’t commented on any of the Facebook threads, but he has liked several comments calling for the invite to be rescinded, which is probably the most strident political action he has ever taken in his life."
"He finds himself rushing to the end of the conversation so they can hang up, and then he can retrospectively savour how much he likes seeing her, without the moment-to-moment pressure of having to produce the right expressions and say the right things. Just to see Helen, her beautiful face, her smile, and to know that she continues loving him, this puts the gift of joy into his day, and for hours he feels nothing but a light-headed happiness."
"At this point in the session Yvonne starts to hand him worksheets, illustrated with large cartoon arrows pointing to various text boxes. He takes them and pretends that he’s intending to fill them out later. She also hands him some photocopied pages about dealing with anxiety, which he pretends he will read."
"Cherries hang on the dark-green trees like earrings. He thinks about this phrase once or twice. He would put it in an email to Marianne, but he can’t email her when she’s downstairs."
And even though the stakes are small and the setting pedestrian, there is something epic about the tale of the relationship between the two troubled characters, Marianne and Connell, as it develops not over a lifetime but over just a few years as they grow up.
There are parts of this that are a joy and delight to read: Her writing is stunning in a simple and straightforward way, not the kind of literary fiction where the sentences have 100 words when 10 will do but the kind of literary fiction where each word is selected thoughtfully and it just feels right.
I can't say I got something from Marianne's life, or Connell's, but I would read something else from Rooney any day of the week.
Rooney's writing is sparse yet touches on the minutiae of everyday life. But the little things, what gets noticed by characters, or not noticed, that offers insight. The insight starts with looking into the characters, then their community, then the world of the work, then the real world we live in. There is very little difference between the last two but they are different, one is fictional with real events included while ours is, unfortunately, all too real. The writing makes this a potentially quick read but I would suggest going a little slower and trying to inhabit their world. This is fiction, you're perfectly safe temporarily living there even if you don't care for some of the characters. I don't like all the "characters" in my real life yet I live here just fine. Maybe try to understand why they do or don't do what they do rather than simply make a blanket judgement that it was stupid, foolish, or, of course, you would never do anything so obviously illogical or irrational. And of course your friends would all be the first to agree with you that you are, indeed, a perfect human being and never ever make irrational decisions.
Yes, you will be frustrated with much of what happens, angered at some of the things as well. Probably embarrassed for them at times. What they are doing "wrong" is indeed relatively clear, not rocket science there. Whether you can empathize for a few hundred pages with flawed characters is less about how good or bad the book is and more about what kind of person you are. Treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were caught, repeatedly, doing things that might not reflect well on you.
Rooney addresses, but stops short of trying to offer a prescriptive solution to, many questions. Why and how do we try to fit into our community? Even not bothering to try is a tactic, so standing "above the fray" is more of a coping mechanism than a solution. What about our lives make us use whatever tactics we use? How conscious are we of the masks we wear? Is there even a real face under all those masks if we have had to wear a mask of some sort even in what should be our safe places? What is love? different types of love? friendship? Are we ever, even when we are aware of what we have been doing, able to go our own way and be that changed person or do we resort back to what we did previously to cope?
Some have complained that this is strictly for millennials. Well, I guess I am a 60 year old millennial. Either that or rather than being for a specific age group it is for a particular type of empathetic reader who sees the human core of life's problems, no matter what age group might be shown.
I do understand that Rooney's style won't appeal to everyone (not counting those who don't want to read actively, they need to stick with books that, as one said, "entertains" them). I happen to be one who finds her writing and insights to be effective and moving. I would recommend this to any reader who likes to engage with the hows and whys (from the character's perspective) of flawed characters' actions. I think the vast majority of you will like the book. I started to say enjoy but it is a dark book most of the time and, while there is an element of enjoyment in reading a well-written dark book it also sounds odd to say I enjoyed reading about depression, abuse, bad relationships, etc. But you get the idea.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
A coming-of-age love story of classmates Connell and Marianne. He's a the popular star of the football team and she is the mysterious loner. Connell's mother works for Marianne's family and the two begin a complicated and secret relationship that starts when Connell comes to Marianne's house to pick his mother up from work.
Fast-forward a year and they are both students at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has come out of her shell and flourishes socially while it is Connell that is struggling to fit in. Throughout their time at university, they ebb and flow in each other's lives, always drawn back together. As Marianne starts a downward spiral into self-destruction, Connell and Marianne must face just how far they are willing to go to save each other.
Rooney explores the complexity of relationships, the obsessive and possessive elements of first love, what class and social standing really means, and the entanglement of families and friendships. She nails the disconnect that many teens experience with the real world and also with how self-absorbed they are while trying to find their place in the world.
What I found exhausting about the book on a whole was how stereotypical the characters were. The women wanted attention and to be loved, all the while not realizing their worth. The male characters were lacking in morals. Just like the jock character in a teen movie, they are 'boys being boys' and this is perfectly acceptable (cue eye roll). She also pens some vile characters that blur the lines with things like bullying and neglect that aren't fully explored, instead they simply vanish.
The writing was poignant and stirring; this book had so much potential but I couldn't see beyond what I mentioned above.
Quotes: "Generally I find men are a lot more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than exercising personal freedoms for themselves, says Marianne. I mean, when you look at the lives they're living, it's sad. They control the whole social system and this is the best they can come up with for themselves? They're not even having fun."
"Their conversations are gratifying for Connell, often taking unexpected turns and prompting him to express ideas he had never consciously formulated before. At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronization that it surprises them both. Knowing that they'll probably have sex again before they sleep probably makes the talking more pleasurable, and he suspects that the intimacy of their discussions, often moving back and forth from the conceptual to the personal, also makes the sex better."
"The literary events were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them."
Review of the Faber & Faber hardcover (2018) edition
There was an element here that repulsed me somewhat, about which it would be a spoiler to go into details (probably other reviews will mention it though).
So it is a bit of a mixed rating. There was a lot of good truth here about the miscommunication between people that can lead to break-ups. About the things left unsaid that would have made a difference at the time but which you cannot go back to repair. So all of that was well written. I might have given it a 4 rating in that respect. The issue mentioned above though kept it well away from 4 (Really Liked It) and 5 (It was Amazing). So it becomes a 3 (Liked It).
Starting with the craft. Rooney is a good writer. While she can get a bit melodramatic at times, her prose is mostly quite spare. She leaves so much space for the reader to do some work and bring herself to the prose but still the story remains accessible. That is a hard balancing act. So much popular fiction is overwritten. Rooney though tells us a great deal about each character through the tiniest everyday actions. The story is in the way they grip the steering wheel, make the coffee, explain things, or clean the counters. The main characters are closed off people in many ways, Marianne is particularly detached, but we still understand their motivations and actions for the most part through their choices and in/actions
For the final 2/3 of the book I thought it was quite good (until the ending, which I either thought was terrible or great, and I truly don't know which side I will ultimately come down on.) I really appreciated the unsentimental but entirely empathetic approach Rooney took to Marianne's masochism. The relationships, both between Marianne and Connell, and between each of them and others in their respective social groups and families, were interesting and nuanced. There was no dime store psychology, the characters had scars that were clearly connected to their upbringings, but also many that were of unknown origin, and both also had strengths the origin of which was completely unclear. Like life.
So far it sounds like its all good, but IMO it is not. I really disliked the first part of the book where Connell and Marianne are in in high school. I understand that it set up the rest of the book, but most of this was unnecessary and all of it felt like mediocre YA. Some of that YA feel could be found later in the book - a particular beef is that these characters bravely share their feelings and insecurities, unless it serves the story for them to suddenly clam up entirely rather than to ask a simple question and for that silence to cause damaging misunderstandings. I really hated when Connell said he had to go home for the summer, out of nowhere, and Marianne never said "why?" This would be part of a standard dance in a romance novel, but it stings here because the best part of the book is the way in which Marianne and Connell "get" each other even when no one else seems to understand them, and the way they choose to act, or not act, on that which they understand is really interesting. These moments where they are willfully obtuse and passive aggressive don't mesh with that understanding, and its pretty irritating.
So yeah, I am conflicted. Overall though, I really enjoyed reading the book once I got past the first 50ish pages. I wanted to spend more time with Connell and Marianne to find out about the next act. I skipped doing other things to read. That is as good a test as I can come up with for determine wither something is better than okay - for me a 3 is "okay." As a second test passed, I am going to go back and read Rooney's first book so I liked it I guess?
Over a period of four years, we watch the dance between these two figures, sometimes partners but more often merely figures swirling on the same dance floor. In an often stream-of consciousness style of writing, in which conversations between characters are not even blocked off by quotation marks, Rooney paints a brilliant portrait of life, love, and makes a powerful argument about what it means to be “normal people.” Profoundly political, she eschews the idea of politics as battles between parties for a more personal argument of it being the often confusing way people search to understand themselves and their place in the world. I could not help but find myself flying through this story, as her way of not separating her characters spoken interactions with the rest of the tale ends up sucking you in so much that you feel like you are watching a live play rather than reading a story.
It is hard not to get a little skeptical when you hear a work profoundly praised and proclaimed a “masterpiece,” but Rooney has certainly created a fantastic little tale that will cause you to pleasantly lose several hours of time before your nose rises from behind the pages.
Side note: This is the third book I've read in as many months that foregoes quotation marks, and I do hope this is not a trend that's gathering momentum because I quite miss them when they're gone.
Rooney's writing is empathetic and detailed. She is especially skilled at capturing small but meaningful gestures and expressions. The reader can easily see that the two are made for each other, yet can be frustrated by their seeming blindness to what seems obvious. To her credit, Rooney resists the nice happy solutions that seem so obvious to the reader.