For years, being a (now recovering) literary fiction snob with a preference for British Commonwealth authors, I’ve followed the Man Booker Prize long- and shortlists as a way to find new books, and since I still need a regular fix of literary fiction even as I explore new genres, I’ve started to look to other prizes to expand my library. With Sally Rooney’s Normal People appearing on the Booker longlist and winning the Costa Novel Award, it was an obvious choice, especially as I continue to try to add more women’s perspectives to my reading.
Marianne and Connell grew up in the same small town in western Ireland and attend the same school, but their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Marianne lives in a huge mansion, which her mother pays Connell’s mother to clean. Marianne actively cultivates a loner personality at school, while Connell is one of the more popular kids and a star on the football team. But they also have a lot in common, including being at the top of their class, and when Connell starts picking his mum up from work, he and Marianne strike up a tentative friendship. Each being conscious of the social dynamics at school, they go back to ignoring each other in public, even after their relationship becomes sexual. After a drunken night out, when Connell defends Marianne and escorts her home in full view of his friends, Marianne starts to believe their relationship could be more than just friends with benefits, but then Connell asks another girl to the big dance, effectively ending their budding relationship and severely damaging their friendship.
Over the next few years, their lives remain intertwined as they both attend Trinity College and find that, even away from the constraints of their small town, they can’t find anyone who knows them as well each other. When they’re close they’re very close, but when things go wrong, they go very wrong indeed. They can’t seem to stay away from each other, even when they try, but something always seems to get in the way of their happiness together.
As much as I enjoyed the read, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I liked this book for its own sake or simply enjoyed it because it reminded me so much of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. Normal People moves beyond school into college and is intended for a more adult audience, but beyond that, the books are so similar that I’m surprised I haven’t been able to find anything online about the similarities, particularly those between Marianne and Eleanor. Both are misfits who feel that they aren’t attractive. Both come from abusive homes with mothers who favor their abusive husbands over their daughters. Both are insecure in their relationships and jump to conclusions instead of getting clarification when their (boy)friends botch the communication. The POV shifts between Marianne and Connell, just as the POV shifted between Eleanor and Park, so we get inside both their heads and realize how much they’re suffering by not sharing with each other the things that really matter.
I don’t mean to imply that Rooney has written a copy of Eleanor & Park, and I think she deserves the attention she’s getting for Normal People. I found myself heavily invested in these lovely, stubborn, insecure, smart, flawed characters. Rooney infuses a great deal of meaning into a small number of words, and while it may have felt insubstantial at first, the weight and depth snuck up on me. This is strong writing, and I want to read more from Rooney. That said, I can’t deny that some of the power was muted by the feeling that I’d already read this story, and perhaps that’s what it’s missing: something truly innovative to make it stand out from other great stories of young love.