Marianne is bookish, friendless, and impervious to the opinions of others. Connell is popular, athletic, and preoccupied with his public perception in their small West Ireland town and amongst their other sixth-form classmates. On paper, they’re an unlikely pairing, but there’s an undeniable magnetism that pulls them together.
After school ends, when they find themselves together at Trinity College, Dublin, their dynamic has shifted. It is no longer Connell in the driving seat: he is now the adrift loner and Marianne is the centre of gravity, encircled with friends and admirers. The novel tenderly charts the course of their fluctuating relationship over the next four years.
‘It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.’
There was that particular kind of millennial angst conveyed through their story, explored in an open way that didn’t feel clichéd. Perhaps this resonated so well because Sally Rooney and I are the same age and her characters were at university the exact same years as I was. There are the insufferable fellow students at Trinity, those who, like Marianne’s boyfriend Jamie, manage to be ‘both boring and hostile at the same time’, prone to bouts of pseudo-intellectualism over too many glasses of pinot. But everyone is desperate to find their place and their people over the course of the three years, whilst also worrying about the vast stretch of time that comes ‘after.’ And at the heart of it all are the oscillating dynamics of Marianne and Connell’s relationship, where class, privilege and power come into play as they navigate the new territory of their intimacy.
‘It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.’
With deftness of touch, Rooney explores the inner workings of our two protagonists, giving the reader a window to everything that goes unsaid, to the missed connections and miscommunications that befall their relationship. Her style is sparse and well-controlled, building a scene through layers of what is both spoken and unspoken, with tiny shifts in the atmosphere subtly and brilliantly evoked.
‘Outside her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake.’
It’s an utterly absorbing read, exploring a well-worn trajectory of first love through a fresh new voice. It’s also a novel that takes us to darker places, and doesn’t shy away from talking frankly about mental health, abuse, and recovery. It isn’t all plain sailing by any means, but, as the novel reflects, ‘life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.’
Read if you enjoyed: One Day by David Nicholls, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett