Book Review: Normal People // Sally Rooney

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Connell and Marianne in 'Normal People''s TV adaptation

I remember when Normal People came out in 2018. There were hundreds of copies stacked from floor to ceiling in Waterstones (it’s vastly popular and a multiple award-winner) but, for some reason, I avoided making the purchase. However, when the recent BBC series came out and I watched the first episode, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. 

I would say that Normal People epitomises the ‘coming of age’ genre. It’s one of those perfect Summer reads, where you can stick your sunglasses on and enjoy it outside. The book flips between the lives of central characters Connell and Marianne; its focus is their painful on-off relationship which you can’t help but root for, as their loneliness is more than obvious. Rooney cleverly structures Normal People however, so we never hear the character’s internal voices or their perspectives. Furthermore, there is no omniscient narrator so there’s always some mystery you aren’t made aware of. Everything’s written in the present tense, so you watch helplessly, unable to influence the action. This is particularly frustrating as you observe powerless when both characters continually misunderstand each other and consequently fall apart, heartbroken. Like all love stories, it’s pretty inevitable that you desire the destined lovers happily reunited. 

The casual way that Rooney suddenly drops in dramatic revelations, like Marianne’s abusive brother (“Allan makes a fist with his left hand. It doesn’t matter it’s over.”), makes it all the more shocking. Sometimes you have to go back and reread to be sure it really happened. Everything is matter-of-fact, but the tone can be changed instantaneously by Rooney wielding a few sharp sentences. We never get to hear Marianne’s internal voice expressing her fear, but the simplistic delivery makes this more poignant. We’re also intrigued about their past relationship, but Rooney only reveals snippets and we never find out more. It’s rare that a book written in this emotionless style succeeds in completely engaging the reader rather than detaching them.

But I also fell in love with the descriptions. It makes you question how a style of book written in such a cold hard way can simultaneously depict such beauty. Particularly the portrayal of the sky when Connell visits Marianne in Italy – “the sky is a thrilling chlorine blue, stretched taut and featureless like silk” – and “extremely blue, delirious, like flavoured ice”. The descriptions are as unnatural as the staged happiness and fake, awkward conversation between the supposed friendly group. But they also demonstrate Rooney’s clever depictions, when she does choose to describe the landscape in depth, it’s all the more riveting. 

I expected this book to go on further. It already jumps around in time for four years, why not six or ten? Yes, we see the couple struggle through school and college, but I felt like I wanted to see them both develop and mature more. I wanted progressions like marriages, divorces, jobs and kids for Connell and Marianne. Connell even imagines pining after Marianne when she’s married to another man in the future and her proclaiming ‘why didn’t I marry you?’. This is how I saw the novel progressing before I realised, they’d never get past college. I guess that’s not the coming of age style. Normal People really demonstrates millennial love- things aren’t as simple anyone, as marrying your childhood sweetheart and staying all your life in the city you were born. It’s quirky and modern, the couple struggle with class difference (Connell refers to himself as Marianne’s “working class friend”), university life, mental health issues and technology. It feels like a relatable journey for any 21st century relationship.

At first, I despised the ending. I wanted both protagonists to recover from their mental issues fully, and to be able to witness them making progress. And, of course, I wanted them to end up together, but maybe I’m just a typical romantic. On reflection, the ending gives the couple a possibility for a future, and we as readers get the possibility of a sequel. Don’t be fooled by the matter-of-fact simple style, this novel is filled to the brim with hidden meaning and message. 

Words by Megan Johnson

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