Normal People by Sally Rooney- Review

I admit, I wanted to read Normal People because I had seen it called a modern love story. Love is certainly laid bare here along with the nuances of power and perception- inward and outward.

In Normal People we meet social outsider Marianne Sheridan and the popular Connell Waldron as teenagers in Carricklea; Connell’s mother cleans the house of the wealthier Sheridan family and through meetings here the two become friends and eventually secret lovers. The narrative charts their relationship through the years as they attend Trinity College where their social statuses reverse. The protagonists navigate their feelings towards each other which are tied up in self-discovery, and complicated by external pressures.

Power and Perception

The novel opens with the line, “Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.” (1), a deceptively simple statement which as I read on seemed to me evocative of their entire relationship:

Marianne is a character who answers when Connell calls, so completely besotted is she by her first love. Connell is equally pulled in by Marianne and his attraction to her which makes him return to her at various points throughout the novel.

Having grown up in an abusive and unloving family the scars manifest in Marianne’s isolated personality, the depth of her love for Connell and desire for him to love her back the same, and later a tendency towards self-loathing and sadistic sexual relationships. 

He is attractive, athletic and has many ‘normal’ friends (most with questionable morals) at school which he struggles to reconcile with his feelings for Marianne. Connell is also plagued by anxieties which creates a different kind of submissiveness.

The intricacies and contradictions of power play, submission and desire are integral to their relationship as well as that between wider characters and forces throughout the novel; class, knowledge and wealth.

After I finished reading Normal People, I felt in a reflective mood and honestly, a little sad. As an over thinker myself, the most captivating and challenging aspect is the way Rooney probes how we think about ourselves, individually and through others, and the uncertainty of not knowing how others perceive you.

Both protagonists are anxious and will overthink what they have said or done. Connell often wonders if/why he says things which are insincere. The novel shines a light on the little moments we seek in everyday life for acceptance and acknowledgment, such as Connell secretly enjoying the academic recognition from his peers in a seminar.

Characters’ sudden joys and darker, random visions too are depicted in equal cutting style- it is all ‘normal’. Part of what makes Marianne and Connell endearing and frustrating is their constant questioning and fear that the other cannot love them.

She squeezed his hand and he squeezed back, so tightly it almost hurt her, and this small gesture of desperation on his part made her smile. (92)

Doubt casts a long shadow even till the end in the book, but it is entirely relatable. Seeking reassurance and asking ourselves the same doubting questions is something we arguably can all identify with.

Rooney explores individual power in a fascinating way, highlighting the little details and revealing how characters’ sense of autonomy and self-worth often relies upon other people. Perception is tied in with power, whether it is Connell’s old school teacher Miss Neary who fantasises that he is attracted to her; to Marianne’s friend Peggy who, “has also started to make fun of her (Marianne) in front of others.”(137) and is “just as happy discussing Marianne’s self-consciousness as she would be engaging in group sex.” (101).

The novel excels at showing the position of power in constant flux with power being embedded in the sharp language itself.

More positively, Rooney also shows how characters’ self-worth is enhanced and encouraged by others such as when Marianne finds herself a loving family environment with Connell and his mother Lorraine.

I enjoyed reading Normal People because of what I found most difficult, how it expresses the difficulty of never truly knowing what another person is thinking, even when you are as familiar with them as an old friend.

“It gave her such a peculiar sense of him as a person to sit there with the printed pages…” (257), Marianne struggles to accept that there will always be a part of Connell which she does not know. We watch as the characters learn to trust and treat each other with care.

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