Review: Normal People24 July 2019
The lights in the house glow orange as the crisp autumn evening descends outside. Four years is a long time, he thinks as he sits and begins to write. Long enough to start and finish a degree. To fall in and out of love. To have your life changed in myriad, complex ways. To meet someone who you can trust unconditionally along the way. He pauses and sips from a mug of tea, the steam curling over the frames of his glasses.
In this sense, Normal People isn’t a groundbreaking story. It’s a story about all of these things—life, love, change, and coexistence—about which story after story have already been written. It grounds these ideas in four turbulent years of late adolescence and early adulthood, imperfect and unforgettable all at the same time.
Marianne is a wealthy girl, smart yet socially ostracised in school. Connell is a working-class boy, well-read and universally liked by his classmates. His mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family, and they meet in the midst of the post-2008 Irish economic downturn.
What starts off as a furtive teenage romance comes to a rapid halt after Connell—for whatever reason—fails to invite Marianne to the school debutante. We don’t see them again until they’ve started university, the complexity of their feelings and insecurities still present, but not quite present enough to confront. They would enter and exit each other’s lives over the coming years intermittently as acquaintances, lovers, friends.
Normal People borders on being a young adult story, but Rooney injects it with thought, frustration (at times), and resignation (at others). It’s a story of limited joy but rather bounteous rawness. It traces a bond between two people with all its doses of admiration, attraction and chemistry, but also its many silences, mistakes, and misunderstandings. The novel also touches on depression, suicide and family violence, grappling with how they impact the lives and relationships of young people.
While its protagonists behave in simultaneously exhilarating, disappointing and sometimes inexplicable ways, the candour of Normal People, combined with Rooney’s proclivity for literary prose, makes it stand out from other (almost-)YA romances. She drives a constant sense of precariousness, of things left unspoken, while constantly building our investment in the successes, as well as the mishaps, of Marianne and Connell.
Normal People is a balancing act of sincerity and tenderness, buoyed all the way through by solid writing and snapshot storytelling from a cerebral, talented author.