No book has ignited memories of my teenage years quite like Normal People. From its very first sexual interlude I was back in my boyfriend Johnny’s basement, necking on the couch, pretending to be watching TV, praying the whole time that his mother Mrs. Wettflaufer wouldn’t come downstairs. My sixteen year old self was alive again. This conjuring was so powerful that any notion that fiction is dead certainly has to be a fiction!
Ostensibly, Sally Rooney’s second novel is the story of friendship between Marianne, who is wealthy but a loner, and Connell, who is poor but surrounded by lots of friends. On its own, the story is not that eventful—after all, much of it takes place in high school—but the dialogue is so impeccable, the silences so real, and their self-conscious hiding of feelings so tender, that right from the very beginning you sense that you are eavesdropping on the lives of two intense people. Closing the book is hard.
Connell’s mother cleans house for Marianne’s mother. This is a black cloud looming over their relationship, as the story takes place in Ireland, where the class system stalks effortlessly. As the two teens open up to each other, you take joy in their cultural meanderings: Connell is an athlete who reads; Marianne is a teenage girl who doesn’t care what others think about her. They share an unusual delight in talking about books and ideas, but their confusion over three words, I love you – when to say it, when not to, worrying about saying it – is palpable and illuminates a universal insecurity that many of us feel.
We move with them to university, where drugs and alcohol are sacraments. The earlier confines of family and a small school give way to a limitless horizon. Marianne recognizes her female power while Connell perceives his insignificance in the world. They wander away from each other but always circle back. Marianne has a penchant for masochism which is frightening for Connell. You want to plunge into the story and help mediate their existence, but of course, as with the choices in your own past, you can’t.
Normal People was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Award. Though it didn’t win, it was the bestselling book in Britain, even beating out Becoming by Michelle Obama. The two books may have something in common—a sincere craving to get at the truth, no matter what it may reveal!