Review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

Enjoy “Normal People” for what it is. Amazing writing. A story of friendship and young love.

About the Book

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney

Marianne and Connell live in the same town. They attend the same secondary school. But that’s where their commonalities end. Connell is popular. Everyone at school likes him. He comes from a poor family, whereas Marianne comes from wealth. She’s hated at school. Bullied. But what does she care? She sees the other kids as beneath her. Except for Connell.

His mother cleans house for Marianne’s family. After a few awkward conversations, the two begin to hook up. Although it quickly becomes more than sex for both of them, they keep it a secret until he follows her to university. Their relationship blossoms and deteriorates and blossoms again over the years, as do Connell and Marianne respectively. Each time they pull away from each other, not much time passes before they are drawn back in.

My Review

It’s Sally Rooney’s writing that makes “Normal People” stand out as remarkable. Her writing seems effortless, like the words fell from her mind straight onto the page. Rooney doesn’t use purple prose. She doesn’t try to impress by selecting the prettiest words to construct beautiful phrases. Instead, her writing is report-like at times. At other times, it’s conversational. That’s not to say it’s hum drum. Rooney can turn a phrase. She makes writing well look easy when it’s not.

On the surface, “Normal People” is about first love with a fistful of cliches thrown in.  The jock and the brain. The poor guy and the rich girl. It’s about a relationship that transcends class or status. At its heart, it’s a romance that doesn’t strive for happily ever after. Instead, it is determined to stay realistic. With Connell and Marianne. With their lives. With their on and off again relationship.

But to delve deeper is to see the shallowness and hypocrisy of the characters, as well as a bit of naivete on their part — or perhaps the author’s.  Marianne and her college friends throw dinner parties where the wine flows freely and talks about social justice abound.  Yet, they have an air of superiority about them that paints them as spoiled snobs more than the intelligent academics they label themselves.  Marianne goes as far to accept a scholarship she admittedly doesn’t need for further proof of her intelligence, taking the chance for aid away from a less affluent student. All the while, Connell’s financial situation is more about a lack of stylish clothes and his wrong accent rather than the absence of opportunities. 

What’s more, aspects of the book are a little too familiar if you read Rooney’s first novel. The main characters in “Normal People” feel like recycled versions of the characters from “Conversations with Friends”.   The poor character who’s a writer. The wealthy character. An Italian summer full of wine. The same nauseating pretentiousness that masks deep insecurities. Rooney’s amazing prose isn’t met with complete originality from story to story, and it’s disappointing.

All of this is not to say that the “Normal People” is not an engrossing and enjoyable read.  If you treat it as a simple book about the relationship between Connell and Marianne, you might find yourself waxing nostalgic about your own first love.  You might even find you finish the book in one sitting.

Enjoy “Normal People” for what it is. Amazing writing. A story of friendship and young love. As that, it’s at least 3.5 stars.

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