After the longest wait I can remember on the library hold list, I finally brought Normal People home last weekend. Intrigued by the amazing review from my trusted cannonball family, but still unsure of what to expect from Sally Rooney’s award-winning novel, I dove in headfirst and barely came up for air until I was finished.
We have a friend’s 12 year old son staying with us this week while his parents prep for a move across the country this summer, and he saw the book out on the patio while we were hanging out this past weekend. He asked me, “So, Normal People…what’s that about? Is it just about regular people? Why would you want to read a book about that?”
Great question, Connor. It’s one I’ve been thinking about for the past few days, and am only just starting to figure out the answer to.
Yes, Normal People is just a story about regular people. But it’s something more, as well.
Connell and Marianne go to the same school and live in the same small town in western Ireland. Marianne lives in a mansion with her mother and brother and is a bit of a loner and an odd duck, although brilliant. She has no friends and everyone keeps their distance from her. Connell lives with his mom on the other side of town, in a neighborhood not quite as nice. His mom works for Marianne’s mother as their house cleaner. Connell is popular and handsome, a star athlete and scholar.
When Connell picks up his mom at work, he sometimes goes inside and finds himself talking to Marianne. Which somehow leads to sex, because teenagers. They have an agreement not to tell anyone, which is more of a need for Connell than for Marianne, because really, who would she tell? As time goes on, Connell realizes that he is only his true self when he is with Marianne – he tells her things he wouldn’t dream of talking about with his friends or his mother. And she realizes that she is completely under his spell, and will do whatever he wants or needs. But then, because high school is the worst, Connell doesn’t ask her to the end-of-the-year dance she severs their relationship.
But they end up at University together in the fall, where their situations seem to have switched. Away from home and in Dublin, Connell finds himself alone, struggling to meet people, while Marianne has completely reinvented herself (however purposefully or accidentally, we don’t really know), and is a glamorous, popular girl surrounded by new friends. They fall back into their old habits, sharing everything – their thoughts, their hopes and fears, as well as a bed — until some other stupid miscommunication forces them apart.
And so it goes. Back and forth for a few years. Clearly, they each need the other to fill some hole in their lives. Connell struggles with depression. Marianne struggles with her self-worth and the mental/physical abuse she has been living with for most of her life. Neither of them are very stable people, but together they are happier than when they are apart.
And that’s pretty much it.
But there’s really so much more.
The writing is sublime. I couldn’t put this book down.
Sally Rooney says more in just a few words than most writers could ever dream of. Her language is achingly realistic. We’ve all felt what Marianne or Connell feels at some point. We’ve all hit that wall where we aren’t sure if we are communicating properly to the person that matters the most, and sometimes the consequences of that miscommunication come as such a surprise.
I didn’t always like the story or the characters. Their behavior –both as individuals and as a couple – often bothered me, and their inability to either commit to being together or living a life apart drove me up the wall.
But that’s life, isn’t it?
The world is filled with all sorts of things to worry about. Grades, money, friends, gossip, love, careers, family. And what matters to you in your life might not be what matters to someone else…but that doesn’t make your concerns any less important.
And if you are lucky enough to find that one person who understands you more than anyone else, you need to figure out how to keep that person in your life no matter what.
“She closes her eyes. He probably won’t come back, she thinks. Or he will, differently. What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once. They’ve done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another.
You should go, she says. I’ll always be here. You know that.”
I don’t know what ends up happening with Marianne and Connell, but I wish them well. I hope they are happy, wherever they are.