Book Content Warnings: Sexual assault, Suicide
Article Content Warnings: n/a
Marianne is an independent-minded social outcast. Connell is an anxious, well-liked jock. Both are wicked smart. They go to the same school in the small town of Carricklea, Ireland, but they only speak to each other when Connell goes to pick up his mom, who works as a housekeeper for Marianne’s family. In these private moments, a flirtation begins to bloom, and eventually something more. Upon Marianne’s suggestion, and Connell’s questionable acceptance, the pair keep their sexual—and accidentally romantic—relationship a secret to keep Connell from the potential ridicule he might face if he is seen with her.
Normal People by Sally Rooney follows the pair as they engage in an on-again, off-again relationship. What first comes across as a romance reveals itself to be a grand coming-of-age story spanning their last year of high school and first few years at university.
Rooney makes the characters in her novel unflinchingly, and at times apologetically, human, a refreshing contrast to the manic-pixie-dream girl/boy trope. Both Marianne and Connell harbor deep-rooted flaws and anxieties which jeopardize their relationship and individual happiness. They make mistakes, which can be difficult to overcome and forgive. Marianne allows herself and almost desires to be treated badly, believing on some level it is what she deserves. Connell, blinded by his fears about how he is perceived, ends up hurting others, as well as himself. Both are terrible at communicating. But, rather than turning readers away from these characters, their flaws draw you in. They invite you to see yourself in one or the other, or both. When Marianne says defeatedly, “I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people,” her insecurity and fear of being damaged, as well as her desire to be better, to be okay, is very relatable, and thus, ironically, very normal.
Rooney also weaves a power dynamic between her characters so delicate and nuanced that it feels real. In high school, Connell holds the upper hand in their social stratosphere, but that quickly changes when they go off to university at Trinity College in Dublin. There, Marianne is recognized as popular, rich, and beautiful, whereas Connell is the underprivileged outcast. Under this framework, money comes into play, and the fact that Connell used Marianne in secondary school is sharply contrasted with the knowledge that his mother is Marianne’s housekeeper. With Connell’s social capital, the relationship used to be on his terms, but now it is on hers. Connell’s experience of being “rich-adjacent” brings a tenuous new insecurity into play of which Marianne is oblivious, adding another fascinating layer to their relationship.
However, when viewing the book through a feminist lens, one could wonder if Marianne may have deserved better than Connell. While they both have flaws, his mistakes and cowardice have a habit of hurting her. Early in their relationship, another character even accuses him of using Marianne for sex. While this accusation may not be entirely true, it is also not entirely false. After all, Connell is initially too ashamed to even be associated with Marianne outside of the bedroom. Connell’s cowardly and, at times, indirectly harmful behavior toward Marianne is brushed over a little too lightly, forgotten because Rooney creates scenes which rouse sympathy for Connell. But his suffering should not excuse his transgressions. It takes a while for Connell to realize Marianne’s sensitivity rather than simply accepting and expecting the ways she is convenient to him. Additionally, every other male figure in Marianne’s life is laughably, one-dimensionally evil, making Connell appear better by default. It leaves me wondering, what would have happened if another, braver love interest had been introduced into Marianne’s life? Would we still root for these two to be together?
Regardless, at the heart of Rooney’s novel is the message that people can change each other for the better. Connell may not start as such, but he grows into someone worthy of Marianne, and Marianne in turn grows to understand her own worth. They undoubtedly leave imprints on each others’ lives and, in a messy, not always straightforward way, do eventually become better people because of one another.
Sally Rooney was born in the west of Ireland in 1991. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Granta and The London Review of Books. Winner of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, she is the author of Conversations with Friends. In 2019, she was named to the inaugural Time 100 Next list.
Normal People can be purchased here