Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People, published in 2018 by Faber and Faber, is written by Irish author Sally Rooney. The novel went on to be longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize as well as the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and received an array of accolades including the British Book Award for Book of the Year 2019, Costa Book Award for Best Novel 2018 and was ranked 25th on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. The novel has also been adapted into a television series of the same name by the BBC and Hulu.

The novel is mostly set in Ireland; in County Sligo for its first half and Trinity College, Dublin for its second. Following a split narrative, the plot revolves around the lives of Marianne and Connell, seniors at the local high school, as they transition into adulthood. While the two main characters are literally a class apart, with Marianne being comfortably upper class, whose mother employs Connell’s as a housekeeper and Connell being working class, they find their similarities in academic excellence and an obvious attraction to each other. Their differences however are glaring. Connell is a popular yet somewhat self-conscious and down to earth football player while Marianne is haughty, headstrong, intelligent but a social outcast. The novel follows their lives as they engage in a secret romance, drift apart and find themselves attending Trinity College in Dublin together. But now with their roles reversed; Marianne transformed into the popular one and Connell struggling to fit in. Throughout the novel, they teeter on the edges of each other’s lives, almost close but never explicitly together. 

Though the pull they feel towards one another makes up the central plot of the novel, their narratives and personal demons, as they navigate relationships and society as adults, are what makes their story impactful, universal and memorable. Rooney’s writing transports one into the very minds of her main characters in a way that makes one feel as if they are experiencing the emotions printed in ink. Rooney also astutely presents the issues of class differences, social acceptance, depression as well as emotional and physical abuse among others in this love story. These issues are the main drivers of the plot; they don’t simply exist in the backdrop but rather govern the main characters’ actions and opinions. 

The novel is expertly written, its prose simple and concise. The novel also lacks, or rather, doesn’t depend on a climactic end; there are no grand gestures, no revelations or confessions or even a happy ending. It avoids the trappings of a classic romance novel by presenting an honest, intense and intimate story that doesn’t feel like a work of fiction. The whole point of the book is that Marianne and Connell are ‘Normal People’ so their lives, feelings and struggles could be a reflection of anyone else’s.

Rooney’s masterpiece is serious and timeless; while the novel is about young people and their experiences as they journey the bridge between childhood and adulthood, it cannot be dismissed as simply a frivolous or immature love story. This coming of age novel manages to carve a place for itself in your heart with its tender and gritty depiction of the most pivotal moments in a youth’s life, from falling in love for the first time to finding self-acceptance and a sense of identity in a world that is determined to question them every step of the way. 

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