Sally Rooney became a literary sensation in her native Ireland with the release of her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, in 2017. Now, the brilliant, Booker Prize-nominated Normal People has only enhanced her reputation.
The novel is partly set in the small Irish town of Carricklea. Sixteen-year-olds Marianne and Connell attend the same school but are worlds apart socially and financially. Marianne is plump, uncool and unliked. She comes from a well-off family, which isolates her from her blue-collar classmates. The star of the football team, Connell, is a slightly aloof, decent, sweetly unassuming guy who picks his mother up from her cleaning job.
A clandestine affair starts between the two, but at school Connell barely acknowledges Marianne. Marianne is treated badly at home, too, where she is ignored by her widowed mother and bullied by her brother. Connell’s casual cruelty evokes all the insecurities of teen life, of fitting in and worrying about what people think. It sets a precedent: Marianne longs for Connell’s love, and he appears unable to give it. The complex relationship between the two—their incredible closeness and dysfunction—is masterfully done.
Both Marianne and Connell receive academic scholarships to Trinity College in Dublin, and over the years, their lives bisect and cross. Marianne becomes popular, while Connell becomes introverted and distant. They become best friends, relying on each other’s counsel as they both enter into new relationships. But there is also a fractious, complicated longing that neither seems to know how to handle. Marianne’s bad choices in boyfriends—bullies and emotional abusers—only put Connell’s qualities in sharp relief. But he, too, is suffering. Depression sees him visiting a therapist and scuppers his relationship with a college girlfriend.
The quality of Rooney’s writing, particularly in the psychologically wrought sex scenes, cannot be understated as she brilliantly provides a window into her protagonists’ true selves. Ultimately, when life bashes them and there is nowhere to turn, they find they always have each other.