Book Review | Normal People by Sally Rooney

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.’

****

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Read if you enjoyed: One Day by David Nicholls, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

10 thoughts on “Book Review | Normal People by Sally Rooney

  1. It’s true that it’s a “millennial angst” sort of book—the lower ratings I’ve seen on Goodreads are from those who admit that maybe it’s a generational thing. 😅 I love your point about how this explores the “trajectory of first love through a fresh new voice”, because I kept thinking how “common” this story is and how it can very easily veer to cliche, but somehow it never does. Great review! 🙂

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    • Thank you! That’s really funny about the GR reviews and also unsurprising. I love a bit of millennial angst 😀 Providing that it isn’t trite or overwrought – which it isn’t here. Isn’t it really clever how she treads a well-worn path but in such an original way – I can’t wait to read more from her.

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  2. completely agree! i love that you describe Rooney’s style as “sparse and well-controlled,” I think that’s exactly it. Something about her writing is so sharp and commanding, even though it’s not flowery or lyrical. So glad you enjoyed this! Its one of my all time fav novels ☺

    Liked by 1 person

    • It took me ages to put my finger on why it worked so well, because it isn’t layered with description or lyricism, like you say – I think it’s the way she builds up the scenes through the internal dialogue and shifting perspectives, you get such a rich picture without her having to say too much! Love that it’s one of your all-time favourite reads! 🙂

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  3. Wonderful review! I wasn’t a big fan of Rooney’s debut but Normal People worked for me in all the ways CwF didn’t. It stuck with me much longer than I anticipated as well and every time I read someone’s review of it I want to read the book all over again. Definitely won’t be for everyone but I think for those that enjoyed it, it’ll stick with them ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! That’s interesting that you weren’t a big fan of CwF but enjoyed this one – this is my first introduction to Sally Rooney so I’m intrigued to see what CwF is like. I’ve been aware of the hype around Normal People for ages but was only prompted to read it with the BBC adaptation that’s just been released – I’m hearing good things, so fingers crossed it does justice to the book!

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