Reading Note:
The New Sally Rooney
9 October 2018

¶ Just a small note of rave for Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I read a review somewhere that suggested that Rooney wrote Normal People first, before the novel that she published last year, Conversations With Friends. Maybe she did, but although I was very intrigued by young woman at the center of Conversations, I was nowhere near as moved by that book as I was by Normal People. 

Connell and Marianne are not normal people. They are both very bright, and both very complicated. They fall into a deep friendship in the last years of high school, but their friendship is a secret, because Connell’s complications are secret — he passes as a jock — while Marianne’s complications are baroque and austere at the same time. He’s a popular guy; she has no friends at all. If it were known that they were lovers, Connell would not know how to navigate the publicity. You know how high school is.

Then they both go to Trinity in Dublin, where they excel. They are lovers, as we say, but they are not quite in love. They miss too many connections; mutual misunderstandings pile up. They are saddled with low self-esteem, a problem that neither seems able to help the other with. This inability to form a stable relationship, to settle either in love or in friendship gives Normal People more than a strain of Romeo and Juliet: you worry that something terrible is going to happen accidentally. 

At one harrowing moment, Connell is flooded by a sense of how easy it would be to hit Marianne, to hurt her. He is so mortified by this vision that he slinks away as soon as he can, without having done anything but clam up. Only later do we see that Marianne has a taste for submission; retrospectively, we wonder, was she surreptitiously inviting Connell to gratify her itch?

When I put Normal People down, the idea that two people could fall in love and live happily ever after freakish, not human somehow. But I was sorry to reach the end. Normal People is a great love story. 

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