I wanted to love this novel. I fully expected to love this novel. At times, I verged on loving this novel. But then, as I got further into it and closer to the end, I gave up the fight. I simply did not like it.
I’ve spent the last week pondering why Normal People didn’t work for me. I don’t object to stories about dysfunctional people, and I certainly don’t require a happy ending. But when a novel bums me out, I want it to be poignant, and that’s where this novel failed me.
To sum up the plot: Marianne and Connell go to high school together. Marianne’s family is rich but emotionally and physically abusive, and she’s an outcast, a “weirdo” at school. Connell’s mother cleans houses (including Marianne’s) for a living, but he’s popular, athletic, and smart, one of the kings of high school. Nobody knows about the connection between Marianne’s and Connell’s families, and when they begin a sexual relationship, they keep it a secret. For him, the secret is about preserving his social status; for her, it seems like she just accepts his treatment as her lot, having grown up accustomed to abuse. The story then follows the pair to Trinity College, where Marianne finds her footing. In spite of becoming popular, though, she continues to subject herself to horrible relationships. She and Connell’s paths continue to cross through their university years and beyond, but they can never seem to get in sync.
I was on board for the first third of the novel: The way that Connell, though a seemingly decent guy, treats Marianne is heartbreaking, yet I can understand and sympathize with why she tolerates it. She feels unloveable and unworthy, and as hard as it was to read, it felt real to me. As the novel progressed, however, and she continued to endure, and even seek out, toxic connections, the novel lost its emotional pull and I became frustrated. It’s not that I think her behavior isn’t plausible; it’s that I didn’t feel like the novel ever wanted me to be horrified by it. I almost felt like the pain was romanticized, that her self-sabotage was supposed to seem noble. Because she (and Connell) do sabotage their relationship at every opportunity: So much could be resolved if they talked honestly to each other from time to time. But they don’t, and while that might make for a realistic portrait of a terrible relationship between two very messed-up individuals, it doesn’t make for a satisfying character arc. I can’t say the characters never learn or grow, but they backslide so often and so completely that they never make any meaningful progress.
So, I chalk this one up to “not for me.” I will continue to read stories about flawed and broken people, I just hope that when I do, the characters demonstrate some willingness to learn.