Book Review – Normal People by Sally Rooney

This January, I picked up a copy of the novel Normal People by Sally Rooney whilst visiting my family back home in hopes to get out of my reading slump that was lasting longer than I care to admit. I had heard from several friends who read it that they loved it, and although I knew of the vast amount of praise that Rooney’s book was receiving, I was also aware of the mixed reviews – people either loved the book or they did not care for it – and that HBO had released a 12-part show of the novel in April of 2020 which I had not seen yet, but I have always preferred to read the book before watching the show or movie anyways. 

I began reading Normal People shortly after I bought the novel, and I tore through it in the span of just a few hours. I distinctly recall finishing it just around 11 pm and feeling absolutely, positively lost in life. To me, Normal People is one of those books where you don’t know how to feel once you finished it, but strangely enough I had way too many emotions about this book that I could not fathom into proper, logical sentences. Thus, I decided to write an article about it in hopes of actually dealing with these enigmatic/incomprehensive feelings. 

Normal People follows the story of the two deeply damaged characters, Marianne and Connell, as they navigate from high school into their young adult lives as they mature from mere acquaintances to seemingly mismatched lovers with complex relationships. The plot depicts their character development as they deal with topics such as mental health, social class, and miscommunication as life continues to drive them back toward each other. The novel, based and set in Ireland, illustrates the contrast between the main characters: Marianne, an intelligent young woman considered a misfit in high school who is from an upper class with an abusive family, and Connell, an athletic and handsome young man from the working class, whose caring mother is Marianne’s housemaid. Their quirky yet intense relationship blooms once they become secret lovers in high school –  for Connell is afraid of the judgement of his friend group – and develops into a complex god-knows-what frustrating situationship based on their lack of communication. Rooney uses dates as chapters, thus the reader catches glimpses of Marianne and Connell’s lives at different times throughout their lives. This allows for a deeper focus on the key moments of their electrifying relationship whilst simultaneously displaying how they change their perspectives throughout high school and beyond. Nevertheless, despite every inconvenience and misfortunes that occur, they always find their way back to each other. 

Normal People is a very character-driven novel, stripped down to dialogue with few descriptions and little plot, which to me further encouraged the reader to genuinely care deeply about the characters. With an examination of what it means to be ‘normal’ in relation to aspects of teenager lives, Rooney successfully raises questions regarding the importance of popularity in high school and how this shifts once you enter university, the harsh realities of battling mental health issues, family and class problems, amongst others. Watching these deeply damaged characters work through their challenges and evolve into more mature individuals was simultaneously very comforting and intensely frustrating to me – I fell in love with Rooney’s characters, but more often than not I had to put the book down and pace around the room for a second before picking it up again. Their unbearable inability to properly communicate with each other – granted, I am sure this was Rooney’s intention – was positively exasperating. At times, all I wished I could do was enter the book and force them to sit and chat. Both Marianne and Connell were deeply aware of their emotions and often spiralled into overanalyzing how their actions affected one another, thus believing they understood the other person, when in reality the majority of their issues could have been resolved through a simple conversation. Of course, this allowed for a very interesting analysis of the inner workings of the mind, but at times it was so overwhelming that all I wished I could do was enter the book and force them to sit and chat. Take this extract, for example, which took place as Connell was struggling financially and overthought whether he should ask Marianne for some help: 

The reality was that he stayed in Marianne’s apartment most nights anyway. He could just tell her about the situation and ask if he could stay in her place until September. He knew she would say yes. He thought she would say yes, it was hard to imagine her not saying yes. But he found himself putting off the conversation, putting off Niall’s enquiries about it, planning to bring it up with her and then at the last minute failing to. It just felt too much like asking her for money. He and Marianne never talked about money. They had never talked, for example, about the fact that her mother paid his mother money to scrub their floors and hang their laundry, or about the fact that this money circulated indirectly to Connell, who spent it, as often as not, on Marianne. He hated having to think about things like that. He knew Marianne never thought that way. She bought him things all the time, dinner, theatre tickets, things she would pay for and then instantly, permanently, forget about. 

Normal People, page 122

Additionally, Rooney uses free indirect speech with no quotation marks to indicate speech. Initially, this felt rather strange to me as it was probably one of the first books I’ve read that used this form of speech indications continuously, but eventually you adapt to the writing style. In my interpretation of the novel, it felt slightly confusing at first but essentially you can naturally become used to and enjoy it, as it is a representation of Connell and Marianne’s confusing relationship – stylistically, I thought it was well represented in the format of the text. It can also be viewed as further representing their problem with miscommunication; since there is no indication of speech, their thoughts and the things they leave unsaid are mixed with speech, blurring the lines between the two. Nevertheless, Rooney also does this despicably in a manner that is easy to comprehend and follow throughout. This form also allows for an impeccable blend between speech and inner thoughts, where the author beautifully writes about their emotions and how they process both traumatic and cheerful moments throughout their lives. 

Furthermore, despite the novel falling somewhat in the RomCom genre, each character has different things happening in their lives apart from the intricacies of their love story, which balances out the romance aspect with other topics the novel deals with. Rooney paints a rather realistic picture of what growing up looks like through issues of who they want to be in life, who their romantic partners are, how their friends influence them, their background, their social and economic status, etc. 

On a final note, I have to admit that although the ending of the novel left me more frustrated than anything, I thought it was a very clever way of writing an open ending to the novel and it suited both characters very well. Marianne is finally in a place in her life where she feels secure and stable, whilst Connell has been accepted to a writing program in the United States which would allow him to follow his dream. The fact that we get no confirmation on whether Connell accepted the offer or not (although we can safely infer that he did) really left things up in the air with their relationship, but (to ease the pain in my heart) I chose to believe that they will essentially find their way back to each other. After all, that’s what the novel is all about, right? 

Despite the enormous level of frustration that I felt whilst reading this book, I came to the conclusion that I loved Normal People. Following the lives of these teenagers and being absolutely baffled by their impeccable skill of miscommunicating made me fall in love with Marianne and Connell. To me, Rooney’s novel is one of those where a lot happens but nothing happens at the same time, and I thoroughly enjoyed the playful character-driven, dialogue-focused style. This being said, I also understand why many people do not like this novel – there have been several arguments about it romanticising the difficulties the characters endure and the ‘artificiality’ of the novel. However, I would (and have) recommended this book to several friends, and have now picked up Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. If you’re searching for a heart wrenching, binge-worthy book that will leave you pacing out of frustration around your room feeling ambivalent, Normal People is most certainly a perfect option.

Written by Laiana Farias

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