After several people whose opinions I respect said they found NORMAL PEOPLE “okay” and “pretty good,” I started the novel with low expectations. But I found the book much more than just okay or pretty good.
Sally Rooney is a talented young writer. Where most of her talent resides is in the writing itself, as opposed to character motivation, plot, pacing or other elements.
Basically, the novel is a love story between Marianne and Connell, both from the western side of Ireland, she from a wealthy but abusive family, he from the working class, raised by a single mother.
They begin a secret relationship in high school, where he is popular and she is socially shunned. He ends up betraying her, but the relationship continues on and off over the next four years when they both head off to Trinity College, although now she’s the popular one and he’s socially marginalized.
Like all love stories, the central question is: Will they end up together? There isn’t a lot of plot; most of the action happens inside the characters’ heads, which I don’t have a problem with, because it results in passages like this, from Marianne’s point of view, regarding her mother, Denise:
Denise decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression toward Marianne as a way of expressing themselves . . . She believes Marianne lacks “warmth,” by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.
No surprise that Marianne turns out to be a masochist and seeks out debasement at the hands of men.
Or this passage, with Marianne considering a young man she was dating and to whom she admitted she was submissive:
When she thinks about how little she respects him, she feels disgusting and begins to hate herself, and these feelings trigger in her an overwhelming desire to be subjugated and in a way broken. When it happens her brain simply goes empty, like a room with a light turned off, and she shudders into orgasm without any perceptible joy.
Insightful, incisive writing like this helps keep the momentum going when there are no other real surprises.
Connell, who suffers a major bout of depression–a plot point that is raised and suddenly dropped–isn’t a good fit for a woman who gravitates toward abuse:
He’s wholesome like a big baby tooth. Probably never in his life has he thought of inflicting pain on someone for sexual purposes.
So there’s the heart of the conflict: they love each other, but seem to be mismatched, so mostly they stay friends. But this actually drags the book down a bit: you know they want to be together, so can’t they figure out some kind of relationship compromise–or at least attempt one?
Overall, an impressive read. I expect great novels from this author.