Sally Rooney’s new book Normal People is ridiculously good. So good that it ruined me for a time. Everything I picked up afterwards seemed fake and hollow by comparison.
Rooney tells the story of two people who connect in a deep way in high school and circle around each other as friends and lovers through college and beyond.
Connor and Marianne seem ill-suited at first: he’s a popular athlete with a hidden smart side, she’s a bookish loner. I’m not going to take away from your pleasure in finding out how their personalities morph over time (I hate when reviewers tell us too much plot), but let’s just say they change and evolve.
Who cares, right? You will because the way Sally Rooney writes about her characters’ outer and especially inner lives has a perceptive quality and authenticity that’s startling. She has an uncanny ability to describe how they see themselves and how others see them and how those worlds are sometimes in stark contrast to one another.
Rooney, a writer from the west of Ireland, takes on timeless subjects like class and money and the ways our families can wound us in a way that seems fresh and original.
Here’s Connor, poor his whole life, who comes into some scholarship money, on his first trip around Europe: “It’s like something he assumed was just a painted backdrop all his life has revealed itself to be real: foreign cities are real, and famous artworks, and underground railway systems, and remains of the Berlin Wall. That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.”
On attending a reading by a writer visiting his college: “Connell couldn’t think of any reason why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant. They were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.” Ouch. As one who’s spent a big part of my professional life setting up literary events, it pains me to admit there’s more than a grain of truth in that.
And later on the same topic: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they like to read about.” Double ouch.
The initially quiet brutality of Marianne’s family life is ever more harrowing because of the subtle way Rooney describes it. It creeps up on us. There’s nothing really quotable here; it’s more a sense of dread that permeates the novel.
The fact that we root for these characters to end up together and truly find the comfort they both deserve in one another—and we care about them enough to feel they do deserve it—speaks to Rooney’s strength as a writer. If you read this book—and you should—make sure that whatever you read next is really really good.