In this novel, we begin with Connell and Marianne, two teenagers from Sligo on the western coast of Ireland, beginning to know each other in high school. In school, Connell is among the more popular group of kids, who don’t know that in his private life he’s a consummate reader and in spite of his reticence, a smart and thoughtful boy. Marianne on the other, while also being thoughtful and smart and a similar reader, is not popular and in fact is considered uncool and ugly by the popular kids. They get together, Connell hides this relationship, and for reasons she’s not entirely clear on, but enthusiastic to please, Marianne agrees to keep the secret. It goes from there.
We jump to college and through out college we find Marianne and Connell trying to be together, falling apart, and getting together again as they try to figure what exactly is the nature of their connection, their place in the world, and their various personal issues that they need to sort through.
You’ve read this novel before, I promise.
Like the previous Sally Rooney novel, I felt this one had perfectly good writing masking very thin characterization, frustrating structure and narration, and ultimately what feels like an unfinished product. This book is full of half-formed characters that borrow heavily from other, more fully realized sources to create interesting characters. The result is neither character seems to have anything depth or reality to them, so much as a walking and talking body on which to hang the desiring organs of pain, trauma, desire, and other “things” we learn about them. The biggest issue with the novel is that it takes itself so so seriously, and is completely devoid of humor and irony. And it’s not the kind of novel that can pull that off. It takes itself seriously in part because the narrative cannot conceive of the idea that like the “normal people” of title might be facing problems and conflicts that most everybody else faces and can’t see that the world actually does know about these things. There’s a lot of other more egregious moments that made me cringe or want to quit as a reader: the “ugly” girl in high school is ACTUALLY pretty when she goes to college. The smart but poor boy is also ALLOWED to be an English major. Actually rich people have real problems too, even if they don’t make any sense. This is a novel that refuses to take any actual risks and confuses serious subject matter for saying something serious.