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Normal People

Review

Normal People

NORMAL PEOPLE, the second novel by Irish writer Sally Rooney, is fantastic: honest and interesting, emotionally astute and entertaining.

Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron are schoolmates in their small Sligo town. In many ways they live worlds apart. Marianne comes from privilege and wealth, and Connell’s mother is the housekeeper for Marianne’s family. Marianne’s mother and brother are caustic and abusive, while Connell’s mother is understanding and gentle. Yet they are also quite similar: fatherless, thoughtful, introspective, curious, and unknown or misjudged by their peers. In the winter of 2011, the tense attraction between them becomes physical, and they begin a years-long romantic and sexual affair that sees them finish high school and then through the first years of college and adulthood. Their connection is deeply felt, though not always kind or healthy, and is often kept secret or interrupted by other relationships and circumstances.

"The honesty found in NORMAL PEOPLE is almost confrontational, which is wonderful. It is an old-fashioned literary romance stripped of anything saccharine or overly poetic."

At the start, Connell’s fear of his feelings for and relationship with Marianne becoming public overrides his thoughts about her emotions or needs. They avoid each other in school, never talking or making eye contact, even as they grow more and more intimate with each other when alone. Marianne seems fine with keeping this secret, but it leads inevitably to heartache and misunderstanding.

After some time and space, they come together again the following year at Trinity College. Both are excited to experience life beyond the confines of their small Irish hometown and the pressures of their families. Connell can stretch his intellectual muscles as he contemplates a life of literature. Marianne grows into a confident and intriguing young woman, desired as a friend and as a lover. That their social roles are reversed in the academic circles in which they now travel is fascinating. While at college, Marianne and Connell are sometimes a couple but always friends, believing that neither could ever find as close a confidante or as understanding a partner. And this proves true, with Connell keeping his emotional distance from girlfriends and Marianne seeking out those who would gladly hurt her.

NORMAL PEOPLE is a character-driven rather than a plot-driven book. While not much happens, a lot changes for Connell and Marianne. This is a new kind of coming-of-age story: contemplative and raw, frankly sensual, written for those on the other side of the awkward early days of adulthood. Rooney makes the mundane beautiful and examines the human experience in fresh and provocative ways, rendering it all extraordinary yet relatable. She unpacks the subtleties of relationships, at least of particular kinds of relationships, showing the dangers and pleasures of love and sex, and presents issues of class with honesty and a fresh writing style. The dialogue feels personal and real, and the points of view of each main character, which at times are in conflict, challenge the reader to examine those perspectives in various ways. Neither Connell nor Marianne is a hero, and neither is perfect. In fact, each is flawed and complicated, and allowed to be so in Rooney’s talented hands.

The honesty found in NORMAL PEOPLE is almost confrontational, which is wonderful. It is an old-fashioned literary romance stripped of anything saccharine or overly poetic. This is a book to savor and devour, full of the often overlooked wisdom of youth and intelligence of passion.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 19, 2019

Normal People
by Sally Rooney

  • Publication Date: April 16, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth
  • ISBN-10: 1984822179
  • ISBN-13: 9781984822178