“Normal People” is a love story that’s almost painful in its wry honesty. People say never judge a book by its cover, but the simple little graphic on the cover of my edition was the main reason I picked this book up from the airport concession in early June. It shows a sardine tin, the lid half-peeled back like crisp bed covers, revealing a boy and a girl nestled tightly together with their faces hidden in each other’s necks. Claustrophobic and intimate, this is exactly the love story that “Normal People” sets out to tell.
Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan first meet as teenagers in Carricklea, a small town in northwestern Ireland. In many ways, their backstories map neatly onto the typical teenage rom-com romp: two star students attracted to one another but kept apart by high school social politics. Connell is the popular, sporty kid while Marianne is the awkward, serious girl who has yet to become aware of her attractive powers. Author Sally Rooney adds in an extra element of class consciousness, where Connell’s young single mother works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house, caring — in many ways — more for Marianne than her own emotionally detached mother. Both youths feel like social outcasts: Connell on the basis of his humble roots, Marianne because her family has been disrupted by an aggressive father and bullish brother.
In a typical high school faux pas, Connell chooses not to ask Marianne to be his date to the high school prom, despite the strong attraction between them, because he worries what his friends will say. The novel then tracks Connell and Marianne closely over the next four years as the two move to university at Trinity College, where they both fall into the role of the country “culchies” next to their fashionable Dublin peers. In a world where timing is never quite right, the two keep messing things up: ridden by insecurity, secrets and miscommunication but undeniably attracted to each other, Connell and Marianne never truly manage to stay together. The dynamic is reminiscent of a Ross-Rachel “will-they-won’t-they,” but this time simple, humbly told and not self-consciously dramatic. There are periods of deep connection between the two, swiftly followed by painful silence and distance, constantly returning to that familiar question:“why do things have to be difficult for no apparent good reason?”
“Normal People” is an incisive tale of insecure young people who make the silliest mistakes. People who, despite being fully aware that they know nothing, still trip themselves up because they overthink everything. It is a beautiful read, effortlessly shifting perspectives between Connell and Marianne. Written in third person, the narrative voice is intimate yet evasive and always somewhat sardonic. Rooney’s voice is a young one. The reader knows exactly what she is talking about, and Rooney, a young Irish woman herself, knows exactly what she is writing about.
For all the sadness that is weaved into this story, “Normal People” is not somber. Connell and Marianne keep trying to reach each other, to support each other even as their closeness wrenches them apart. Marianne reflects, “all these years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.” Although it is difficult, they refuse to give up these moments together for any alternative.
I have never read a book that so exactly describes what it’s like to fall for a best friend, someone who is more a sibling, a protector to you than your own family. I read “Normal People” in one and a half days because it felt familiar and truthful. Rooney has been called the fresh new voice of millenials and in many ways her story is about us: young adults, perhaps too smart for their own good, trying to navigate novel feelings of frighteningly deep, murky emotion against those practical “questions of life.”
If you love reading to discover that the feelings and situations of a novel suddenly become real, you must read this book. If you want to read about normal people, college students who are trying to figure it out, who are not exactly bad nor exactly good (and are actually really quite bad some of the time), you must read this book. If you like simple, laser-sharp sentences that will cut through to you, you must read this book. If you have been desperately trying to find a new, fresh book by a new, fresh author (excitingly — or frighteningly — close to our age) then you must read this book. Rooney writes a romance novel that is not pretentious or contorted to fit any convention, like old sardines preserved in a tin. To find that in a novel is very rare.
You will read “Normal People” faster than you can binge “Euphoria”. It might even take you less time than watching Timothée Chalamet’s newest Netflix Original … This is reading for pleasure that is actually achievable on a Yale mid-November schedule.
Alexa Stanger | firstname.lastname@example.org