Book review: ‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney

(spoilers!)

‘Normal People’ is the novel that I’ve seen people reading everywhere. From bus to beach, waiting rooms to friends’ bookshelves. It’s every second recommendation I’ve had, and so I was relieved to finally get round to it, and add my opinion to the pile. The story centres around two young people, Connell and Marianne – both relatably strange in their own unique way – and follows them as they grow up, at times intertwined, and at times apart. 

Rooney has been praised for her realistic characterisation, her portrayal of mental health and relationships, and her exciting writing style. While I wouldn’t label it ‘astonishing’ (as The Independent does on the cover), this novel (following her debut ‘Conversations with Friends’) really dedicates itself to the realistic portrayal of a mind, and the pitfalls, the communication issues and the emotional trauma that comes along with the good stuff in a relationship. 

Both characters show real growth throughout the novel which takes place over four years, from their last years at school into their early adulthood. They misunderstand each other’s intentions on multiple occasions, they hurt each other, they have lives outside of each other.

One thing that Rooney does which makes this novel stand out, is the insistence on realism, even at the sacrifice of ingrained literary habits. Dialogue isn’t “quoted”, it moulds into other elements of the text, giving as much weight to their actions and the description of their surroundings as it does to what they say (as in real life, often what is said is a half truth – not what is meant – or explained incorrectly). She doesn’t inflect the text with much description of ‘how’ it is said – mostly she says, he says (rather than she screams, he sobs). This helps to give the power of the read over to the observer – you can imagine the tone you want and ‘take sides’ as you want (something which, for me, flipped with each new scenario). 

Another ‘idea’ of what a novel needs to contain, particularly about relationships, is this idea of high drama – a long courting period, getting together, a breaking apart, a will-they-won’t-they element before they finally lose or win each other for good. Though Rooney’s characters do subscribe to a similar pattern, they do it in a way that seems more authentic, more real. It reminds me a lot of ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls (the book, not the car-crash of the movie) in a way, because of the attention to the minutiae of a mind when you’re having conversations of the heart.

An element of the novel which tore me up (as to whether it was deliberate or not) was the personalities of the characters outside of the relationship. ‘Normal People’ clearly contains two protagonists with ideas, dreams and thoughts outside of their time together. They’re not co-dependent in the ‘typical’ literary way i.e. they are incapable of functioning without each other and spend each waking moment thinking of no-one but their love, BUT it is still made very clear to us that they are supposed to be meant for each other, they fill each others holes (naughty), that they are unbalanced without the other person to complete them. 

Distilled down to its very essence: Connell suffers debilitating depression and suicidal thoughts due to feeling completely alone and out of place at his university. He tried so hard at school to fit in, and be popular, and initially looked down on Marianne in many ways because of this. Once they start seeing each other, he feels like no-one understands him but Marianne, who brings him curious calm, and a sense of belonging. Marianne suffers from feelings of worthlessness – she is treated horribly by her brother at home, was bullied at school (by the girls but particularly by boys who commented on her appearance) and seeks out relationships in which she can submit to them. She wants to feel that she can trust someone and they won’t take advantage of her – but every other boyfriend uses this opportunity to humiliate her. Connell won’t, and she acknowledges that he is, simply, a nice guy. 

In short, they are presented as almost perfect for each other, but thwarted by circumstance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (who doesn’t want to believe in true love), but the ending suggests that they may just be friends and it felt like a bit of a cop out. Yes, people can be friends instead of lovers, and yes, relationships can be in our lives to just be lessons rather than long-term fixtures in our lives – but if the characters have shown us anything in the book, it’s that they’ll never be as happy with anyone else as they will be with each other. As a reader, I wanted a ‘yes’, or a ‘no’, to happily ever after, but I suppose that this was the lesson we’re supposed to learn as readers alongside the characters – things just aren’t that simple. 

It isn’t a whole story from beginning to end – it’s a snapshot of something larger. A never-ending story, as so many of ours are. The praise for this book in 2018 was incredible, matched only in 2019 by ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo. And it does deserve it. It is a great addition to literary fiction and romance, taking our hand and showing us gently that love is far more complicated than soulmates, and that in the end, love for yourself is just as important.


Have you already read ‘Normal People’?

Did you agree? And am I being too harsh on the characters and Rooney’s portrayal of love?

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