Normal People | Sally Rooney

 

Image by Hulu / The Atlantic

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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:

 

So this is what it’s like in Dublin. All Connell’s classmates have identical accents and carry the same size MacBook under their arms. In seminars they express their opinions passionately and conduct impromptu debates. Unable to form such straightforward views or express them with any force, Connell initially felt a sense of crushing inferiority to his fellow students, as if he had upgraded himself accidentally to an intellectual level far above his own, where he had to strain to make sense of the most basic principles.

 

But then a sudden revelation struck him:

 

He did gradually start to wonder why all their classroom discussions were so abstract and lacking in textual detail, and eventually he realized that most people were not actually doing the reading. They were coming into college everyday to have heated debates about books they had not read. He understands now that his classmates are not like him. It’s easy for them to have opinions, to express them with confidence. They don’t worry about appearing ignorant or conceited. They are not stupid people, but they are not so much smarter than him either. They just move through the world in a different way, and he’ll probably never understand them, and he knows they will probably never understand him, or even try.

 


It’s passages like these that have made Normal People one of the most heart-warming books I have read this year. Even though the novel does have some romantic elements at its core, never once do these elements overwhelm the clarity and freshness of Rooney’s excellent prose. Yes, Rooney might not be the definition of high-brow literature—and I thank god for that as I sincerely had enough of it— and her stories do tend to focus on millennial life and all the distractions that come with it, but she writes about these things without the filters of over-sentimentality and romantic nostalgia. Moreover, she’s managed to create the two most perfectly flawed but incredibly sympathetic characters you’re likely to find between covers.


Normal People is a novel about young love, but there’s infinitely more to it than that. It’s a meticulous observation on people, conflicted feelings, meditations on a capitalistic-driven, economically uncertain, climate change-threatening world, as seen through the lenses of a couple of 20-something-year-old students.


And I absolutely adored it.