I rarely read romance fiction or YA novels. Studying literature in an academic environment unavoidably pressures you into reading lots of classics and directs your attention towards books that have demonstrably stood the test of time. That, I have to say, does take the fun out of reading sometimes and makes you feel like you are being frowned upon by an invisible force whenever you pick up a low-brow kind of novel.
A month ago, I was supposed to read H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald for a course I was taking on literary prizes. Long story short—I didn’t, but left the bookshop with a fresh novel by an author I have never read before: Sally Rooney. I spent the next couple of days devouring this superbly written novel that is impeccably contemporary, and romantic, and tragic, and psychologically astute—and perfectly sweet.
Normal People tells the story of Connell and Marianne, teenagers when we first met them, who grow up to be these ever flawed but wholly genuine young adults. In school, Connell is highly popular and an athlete, whereas Marianne is his exact opposite. Unconventional and seemingly outcast, Marianne is a formidable character. There is a sense of detachment about her and a self-assuredness that grants her a unique perspective on the world. During classes, she is not afraid to tell her professors things like: "Don’t delude yourself, I have nothing to learn from you." She also comes from a particularly wealthy background and a highly abusive family—both mentally and sometimes even physically—which makes her feel like she is unfit to be loved.
Connell, on the other hand, comes from a lower to middle class family and his mother works as a cleaner in Marianne’s mansion. Unlike Marianne, Connell comes from a loving home and his relationship with his mother is infinitely better than Marianne’s.
The novel follows these two characters from adolescence until their student years at Trinity College in Dublin, where they end up studying English literature (Connell) and politics (Marianne). This new environment puts Marianne in an unprecedented flourishing light, whereas Connell feels out of place in a background of elitism and smart wannabes. At this point, the pages of Normal People become strewn by conversations on a rich area of preoccupations. The characters discuss political and economic issues facing society, their mutual disdain against capitalism and other small rebellions against the system. Throughout the novel, Connell and Marianne keep drifting in and out of each other’s lives and Rooney excels at documenting their struggles to maintain a normal, healthy relationship.
Contemplating his life since he moved to Dublin, Collen says: