Normal People by Sally Rooney
There are very few contemporary authors who have written novels or short stories that I can read over and over again. Ones, who pull you in with their first sentence, keep you with their second, and then you’re at the end trying to read the final sentence as slowly as possible saying, “How could you stop? I need more.” To which the only proper response is to reopen the first page and start again.
Sally Rooney, author of novels like Conversations with Friends and more recently Normal People, is one of those few authors I can count on. Rooney ticks off every single box of what I want in modern day fiction. Firstly, there’s a James Joyce-ian lack of quotation marks throughout all of her writing. A narrative style that may be off-putting to some but blends with the rest of her story-telling abilities. Every single one of her characters are complex subjects a scholar could dissect but any person looking for a good every day read could thoroughly enjoy as well. When she combines those characters you get another of Rooney’s skills. She gets modern day romance. Her understanding of how the younger generation- the people in their twenties plagued with that “disdainful” capital M word- interacts and thinks and loves. Then of course, there are the complications of all those elements. Her novels tear apart any notion of “traditional” relationships, without any hang ups of inauthenticity.
Take Normal People, which will be released in the U.S. in mid-April. A novel that follows two people, Marianne and Connell, as they go from two high school students who don’t speak to each other (in public) and end as two students at Trinity who seem to know every little quirk about each other. Each chapter switches perspectives, told by a third-person narrator, never sticking with just Connell’s ideas or just Marianne’s. You begin with Connell, a high school soccer star in a small town who’s popular, handsome, poor, smart, and quiet. He’s just entered Marianne’s home where his mother works as a cleaner. Which leads to Marianne, an intelligent girl, with a wealthy family, who nobody seems to know anything about at school, but everyone has a strong, negative opinion of.
A relationship develops, with secret meetings and unequal footing in the relationship and, by the end of their high school days, a bit more emotional pain than either of them anticipated. But, that’s not the end of them. They both find each other again when they truly begin their lives at Trinity College. Except for the once golden boy Connell, it’s more of a struggle in such a big pond where no one knows or cares about his past small-scale achievements. For Marianne, it’s a new beginning to flourish, to meet new people who find her interesting and constantly vie for her attention. Their societal footing shifts, the inequality of their positions switching and soon melding into a form of equality as they find their way back into a casual relationship.
Rooney complicates them, through their dialogue exchanged and their thoughts that they don’t exchange. As a reader, you don’t know whether to trust either of their intentions. Even with the glimpses into their heads. They have real issues, within their relationships and within their personal lives. They have real triumphs and losses when they get away from their small town and into the big city of Dublin. Their storyline never feels like one that only could occur in fiction. The conversations they have are ones you would hear in any college classroom in the world.
She broaches subjects along the lines of sexual taboos, politics, depression, gender equality, classism, of just… figuring out life as you go on. All of this occurs in just 266 pages. And she does a damn fine job of it.