Rooney, Sally. Normal People.

London: Hogarth, 2018.

This is a fascinating book, but it’s difficult to explain why. It’s the story of two young people in Ireland and their on-again, off-again relationship over a period of about four years, from roughly their last year in secondary school through their time at Trinity College in Dublin. That’s basically it. In fact, that’s almost entirely it. And yet, there’s really a great deal more to the story.

Connell’s single mother is a house-cleaner, and they live together in a small house in a blue-collar neighborhood of a small town near Sligo. Marianne lives with her own mother, a high-priced lawyer, in a mansion, which Connell’s mother is paid to clean. They’re both loners, so that’s how they know each other, but they’re also the two smartest people in their school, and they know that, too. They first get together almost by accident and it’s her first time for sex. It’s not his first time, but it’s certainly his first emotional involvement with a girl. Connell keeps their growing feelings for each other quiet, assuming no one on either side of the social divide would approve — not quite realizing that Marianne just doesn’t care about such things. So he asks someone else to the big dance at the end of school, apparently thinking he’s protecting her reputation, and not seeing how badly he’s hurt her. And he doesn’t see her again until they’re both off at Trinity some months later, when they somehow end up together again.

That sets the pattern: Coming together, trying to understand each other’s not quite stdandard-issue personalities, screwing things up, moving apart again, being lonely, drifting back together again. It’s sometimes kind of painful to read, actually, especially as Connell seems to be coming to terms with the world he has to live in even as Marianne seems to be losing her way. You want to grab Connell and force him to pay attention to what she’s not saying. And you want to make her realize just how uncertain about her he really is, which she never seems to notice. And you especially want to yell at both of them to stop making assumptions about each other, because they’re so often wrong. So, will there be a happy ending? And what would “happy” actually mean for two people like them? If you’re looking for action and adventure, you’re not going to find it here. But if you’re interested in people and how they struggle to figure out their lives in a realistic way at the beginning of adulthood, I recommend you spend some time with Connell and Marianne.

Published in: on 18 July 2019 at 10:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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