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.
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.
The two main characters, Marianne and Connell, were "friends with benefits" and kept their relationship a secret. She was from a wealthy family while he had an entirely different background and his mother cleaned Marianne's house. Both were unlikable and unbelievable so I didn't connect with them. But there was a definite connection between them! I assume the author meant for this to be a love story with indepth character studies, but mostly it was about their sex life. They couldn't stay away from each other even when they were dating others. Since the author is young, these characters and the plot seemed to me to be the world her generation inhabits. They have never had to do without, are well-educated, cynical and have political insight. But they sure aren't smart enough to stop smoking and drinking way too much.
I never got the point of this story. It was a misfit for me. It has gotten lots of great reviews, but not from me.
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 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.
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.
This is a beautiful story of Marianne and Connell who meet at school in Ireland. Marianne is bolshy, fierce, yet oh so vulnerable and at times naïve. She's essentially broken in many ways, not least because of her family. When they initially spend time together Connell is the popular guy at school and Marianne is the misfit. What's interesting as the book progresses is the way their roles reverse, especially when they go to Trinity College in Dublin. The power in the relationship switches between them more than once.
Make no mistake about it, this is a love story but it's a problematic one. No two characters need their heads banging together more than these two. And yet it's so achingly moving and tender it struck right at the heart of me. I'm a sucker for a story about star-crossed lovers and characters who are drawn to each other despite all the odds. It feels like Marianne and Connell are attached by invisible elastic which, no matter what, brings them back to each other.
I admit that when I got to the end of the book I felt disappointed. I wanted a different ending for these characters I had become so invested in. But having thought about it since, and having seen the adaptation, I think it's probably the only ending that would have worked. Where I initially wanted to stamp my feet at the ending, I'm now sagely nodding my head.
Most book lovers prefer the book to the film or TV version, me included. Having now worked my way through the series I have to say that I have rarely seen a more perfect adaptation. Little has been changed from the book and what has works beautifully. The acting is spot on and I honestly don't think any other actors could have played Marianne and Connell better or more sympathetically. Their portrayal is stunning and the whole series has a mesmerising cinematic feel to it that had me spellbound.
Normal People is a very special story. It's about peer pressure, fitting in, family, being a student, being a son or daughter, but above all else it's about love. Pure and simple love. It's wonderful.
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.
I’ve tried to understand the hype that surrounds Rooney’s book, but I’m afraid I just don’t like her style of writing at all. Dull passages, under developed supporting characters, and so much telling instead of showing.
"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.
This is a sexual coming-of-age that revolves around a couple who meet as teens in high school when they start hooking up. They hook up, but never make their relationship status official with their families, friends or each other. This goes on and off and then on and off ad nauseum throughout their college years and beyond.
Both characters are wounded-bird types. In high school, he's popular; she isn't. Her family has money; his doesn't. In college, the power balance flips - she's popular; he isn't. Apparently, they're attracted to each other in part because of their shared literary and academic brilliance (eyeroll emoji).
Neither character exhibits strong emotional wellbeing. She particularly has faced serious abuse which affects relationship choices she makes later in which she allows herself to be sexually and physically abused (and in fact, sexual desire and abuse become conflated for her).
The abuse (emotional and physical) first from her family and then from her lovers is made quite clear without being explicit. If anything, it's treated almost too casually - as if it's just a normal, regular thing that one deals with as a teen.
I think it's supposed to feel very modern, mature, and sophisticated. Maybe it does read that way if you're 20. To me, it read more trite and shallow, leaning toward disturbing with the abuse. Not a painful read, but empty calories.
They both head to Trinity College, an elite private school in Dublin. There the tables are turned. Marianne fits in with the other wealthy students, while Connell feels like an outsider. My favorite line in the book is Connell’s observation of the other students at a party:
“It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”
Throughout college, Marianne and Connell break-up and get back together a few times, dating other people in-between. Their break-ups are usually precipitated by some sort of misunderstanding. The kind that makes you want to jump in the book and shake them. Just communicate with each other for goodness sake!
Some of the reviews I read after reading Normal People indicate that its theme is class. While that didn’t jump out at me as the theme while I was reading it, looking back on it now, I can see that it is about class to some extent. Marianne and Connell are definitely of different classes and it does have an effect on the way they each see the world and relate to one another.
Normal People has also been called the first great millennial novel. Speaking as a Gen Xer, I can see why it’s been called that but I think that anyone can appreciate it, although maybe not as much as a millennial might. My book club that is made up of mostly baby boomers were lukewarm on it overall. I enjoyed it enough that I plan to read Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, which is supposed to be fairly similar and just as good, if not better. Normal People has been made into a limited series on Hulu which I also plan to check out. I’ll keep you posted on what it’s like.
It's a coming of age with none of the magic of better known, and better written, novels. I'll keep guessing as to reasons of its popularity.
The close study of the characters as well as their relationships is very well done. Connell, raised by a single mother, is close to Lorraine, and it's clear that her parenting has made him into the confident, sensitive young man he has become. Still, his desire to be like everyone else--to be a "normal person"--eats away at his authentic self. While Marianne has the benefit of family wealth, her father died when she was younger, her mother is indifferent, and he older brother is abusive. She, too, wants nothing more than to be a "normal person." We watch as the past and things beyond their control changes they way they see themselves and the way the world sees them, as well as their own relationship.
The writing is fine overall, but there are some awkward similes. For example: "He holds her tightly, his body adjusting itself to hers like the kind of mattress that's supposedly good for you." I guess the last phrase kind of makes it work because it questions whether these two are really good for one another; but bodies as Memory Foam mattresses? That one hit me hard.
Normal People is an interesting and complicated story, but it won't be on the top of my list of books read this year.
Romance novels are an area of great ignorance for me, as I haven't read a romance since my early days working at Waldenbooks. I sat in the backroom on my breaks and read a Harlequin monthly romance novel, just so I knew more about maybe why people were buying so many of them each and every month. I didn't solve the mystery of the romance novels in those few hours, but it gave me a great story to tell.
Sorry to digress. When we first learn about the book's main characters, the unpopular, very smart, Marianne, who's family is rich, distant (and worse), and Connell, who's incredible popular, athletic, and from a much lower class, but close family ... and his mother works as a housekeeper for Marianne's family.
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.
Sally Rooney can write, and she writes conversations better than most, but while her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, dove into the relationships between people, this novel stays much closer to the surface, substituting drama for insight into Connell and Marianne. I found this book simpler and less interesting than her first, and the repetition of some of the scenes and circumstances (the al fresco dinner at a holiday home, a character believing that being employed was pointless...) made me wish I'd left a longer span between the books.