Normal People by Sally Rooney is a novel about a budding relationship between Marianne and Connell which spans three years and multiple relationships. The novel doesn’t follow a strong plot, and so is guided mostly by conversations, parties, and dates. It is pushed forward by the constant feeling of will Marianne and Connell be together or won’t they.
I preface my discussion about Normal People by saying that I am not the book’s intended audience (i.e. white middle class women). I generally find stories that cannot emotionally or physically drive characters forward to be stale and uninteresting. While things surely do happen in the novel, things feel loosely linked.
In other reviews and discussions of the book, people have praised Rooney’s style and prose. Though, this never really made any sense to me because her phrases feel clunky with little information conveyed. For example, on page 31 she writes, “Instead everyone has to pretend not to notice that their social lives are arranged hierarchically, with certain people at the top, some jostling at mid-level, and others lower down.” This sentence could’ve ended at “hierarchically”, as it is implied that there are people at the top, middle, and bottom. Sentences like this are not outliers and are so common, it feels like most of what I read was fluff.
Another aspect I felt was lacking was the way Rooney approaches social class dynamics between Marianne and Connell. In this instance, Marianne is the rich one with the distant mother (a tired trope) while Connell is the poor one whose mother works for Marianne’s mother. Though, beyond this initial setup and the heavy-handed discussions of Communism, there is little consideration of money as a driving factor. Yes, it is shown that Connell has to work jobs and leave college once because he can’t afford it, but these moments are tossed aside and rarely considered after. For example, if Connell is meant to be the one without money, then why does he, as opposed to Marianne, drive a car? Why is, in the consideration of college, little attention paid towards the stresses of having to pay for tuition? If Rooney were to truly consider what it means to come from few means, this book would need to dig deeper into these types of institutional barriers.
And as an aside, from page 162 it describes Connell thinking about writing. “In his little gray journal he wrote recently: idea for a story told through email? Then he crossed it out, deciding it was gimmicky.” Though, this confuses me because in her following book Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney uses email as a way to push her story forward. I just can’t wrap my head around the inconsistency of this logic.
Overall, this novel was deeply lacking in its use of language and meaning. Small things that also felt odd was the absent use of quotations or dialogue syntax, always drinking tea/coffee/wine, odd use of past and present tenses, grating sex scenes, and dull descriptions. I felt like I was reading a book that had no zest/character/spice.
Final Rating: 1.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.