BOOK REVIEW: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Published on 23 October 2023 at 14:55

Normal People by Sally Rooney is one of the best books I've ever had the pleasure of reading. It's also one of the most frustrating, but still. I believe that these facts can coexist with one another.

Published in 2018, Normal People was cemented as a modern literary fiction giant when its Hulu adaptation aired in 2020. Although Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones's stellar performances and the phenomenal script adaptation spearheaded by Rooney certainly contribute to Normal People's popularity, I think that part of the appeal of Normal People during the height of the pandemic can also be attributed to the themes of loneliness and connection that are present in both the novel and television show. 

Marianne and Connell, the two protagonists, both feel like outsiders in their own ways. Marianne struggled to connect with her peers in high school, often labeled as cold and aloof—something that was exacerbated by her family's wealth and poor reputation. Connell, meanwhile, was popular and athletic. Connell's mother is a maid for Marianne's family, which helps Connell and Marianne grow closer and begin the undefined romance which serves as the beating heart of the entire novel. Both are lonely and isolated characters, especially at different points in the novel—though popular in high school, Connell struggles in college, while Marianne experiences the inverse. They inherently understand one another as a result of their struggles and desires for human connection, yet they cannot voice the level of affection they feel.

It's implied that Marianne and Connell's relationship is complicated by their separate socioeconomic classes which effectively distances them even in the face of their love. Marianne doesn't understand Connell's approach to money and his inability to ask for her help, and Connell harbors resentment toward Marianne for her wealth even as he's aware of her difficult relationship to her own family.

Marianne and Connell openly discuss their political stances early on in the novel, and are critical of capitalism and unequal wealth distribution. But, moreover, their refusal to define their relationship is a Marxist perspective in and of itself. Rooney is a self-described Marxist, and Sohale Andrus Mortazavi, writing for In These Timesput it best when he said that Rooney explores how love "can quickly become a transactional affair under capitalism" in her novels. Rooney's prior novel, Conversations with Friends, is perhaps more explicit with these themes, but Normal People also questions why Marianne and Connell should need to define their relationship, and what it implies about their love that they continually refuse to contextualize it. By the end of the novel, the reader is left feeling as though Marianne and Connell's relationship is transcendent due to this undefined nature. Because they care for one another in a way that refuses traditional social boundaries, their love is stronger than what it might have otherwise been.

It follows, then, that their loneliness and isolation may also be a consequence of capitalism and a materialistic culture. But I also think this is where the title "normal people" comes into play. Marianne and Connell, by virtue of this title, are no different from anyone else in the novel, and their struggles are no or less important than anyone else's, either. This is proven especially true when Connell learns that one of his high school friends, whom he had lost touch with, committed suicide. Connell reacts with surprise, and it's implied Connell hadn't thought his friend was capable of feeling such complex emotions. Connell and Marianne are wrapped up in their own world, but Rooney never loses sight of the fact that that world is also full of complex characters who have their own stories and struggles. Their loneliness and isolation, then, may just be symptomatic of their statuses as normal people in the world. 

Normal People is exquisitely written. Rooney's style can be described as economic (which is ironic), and her lack of dialogue tags is both unique and a benefit to this smooth and understated writing. While I'm not sure if I fully agree with the underlying Marxist argument, it's also an interesting and compelling one, and something that sets Rooney apart from other writers, I feel.

I highly recommend giving Normal People a read, if you haven't already. 

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Til next time.

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