The focus of this week’s The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews is Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Find out what Brandon’s class thought of this sophomore novel from Sally Rooney below:
In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.
As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.
After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.
Normal People, Sally Rooney
Quick Synopsis: Marianne and Connell deal with the vagaries of high school and college, while finding their emotional orbit constantly circling around each other.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People was pitched as a romantic novel about two young undergrads named Connell and Marianne. The story has the simple popular boy and unpopular girl meet in high school and start to like each other plot. However, due to their differences in social status they fall out, only to meet again and reignite certain feelings, but then something happens that tears them apart. Thus, the cycle continues.
I suppose on the surface you can call this a love story: It has all the average love story tropes. Two individuals who are in love but too afraid to express their feelings, misunderstandings that break them up, family/friends as obstacles, and all those other cliché romance tropes. So the question is: How does this novel stand out? I suppose one could argue the characters are somewhat interesting. Well, at least one of them was interesting. The female protagonist, Marianne, stuck me as a very complex and well-developed character. Without giving anything away, throughout the book she seems to surrender a lot of agency within her relationships, especially in her relationship with Connell, because even Connell notices the power dynamic in their relationship.
Throughout the book, I cared more about Marianne than Connell. Since she seemed the most developed and suffered the most abuse. I was hoping by the end of the novel she would grow more and gain more agency in her relationships. But I suppose this isn’t one of those kind of books. If you are going into this hoping for a decent drama/romance, this book will do the trick. If you are looking for a book with a new spin on romance and two charming leading characters, then this may not be the book to read.
In the novel Normal People by Sally Rooney, the reader follows the love story of Connell and Marianne, starting when they are in high school.
This book focuses extremely on the psychological aspects of each of its characters which allows Rooney to create very complex and detailed characters. Not only do psychological factors play a role in the way this story unfolds, but so does economic and social class. Connell is from the lower class with a single mother and Marianne is from the upper class with a widowed mother. Throughout the novel it seems as though Connell believes that this is partially a reason why the two don’t necessarily work out. This subplot seems to be less fleshed out than the psychological aspect of the narrative.
As the pair ages and goes through different life events, so does their dynamic. Connell is definitely the less mentally damaged of the two characters, but still damaged nonetheless. This novel shows the different psychological outcomes that can come from mental and physical abuse, an absent father, and social and economic class and a real-world smoothie perfectly blended on the page. Rooney’s voice is clear and consistent throughout the novel and easy to understand. Rooney also goes into great detail about each of her characters so the reader is left with a feeling that they know who these people are and what they would outside the context of this narrative.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People offers a nuanced portrayal of young love in all of its complication and confusion. Following Marianne and Connell through five years of their on-again-off-again relationship, Rooney provides a deft portrayal of intimacy, lending the reader a first-hand example of how our lives can be drawn toward, tethered to, and changed by another person. Continuing in the tradition of Conversations with Friends, Rooney showcases an astute understanding of the psychological complexities surrounding love and sex—particularly in one’s formative encounters. The writing in Normal People presents Rooney as a master of small-intimacies. Her scenes are packed with a vertiginous sweetness that, despite all of the complexities presented by social, economic, and personal tribulations, lends itself well to the novel’s epigraph: “…to many among us, neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some particular personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.” Rooney, too, subdues her reader into receptiveness, inviting them into such a convincing portrayal of intimacy that they feel almost a part of it themselves.
Out of all the young adult books I’ve read, I would say Sally Rooney’s Normal People relates the most to the youths of today’s generation. This book is more of a twist on the usual romance novels, because it has concerns about lust, abuse, drugs, and the phases that college teenagers, Connell and Marianne, go through. I didn’t like this book going into it or finishing it, but this isn’t a terrible book either—it’s an all right attempt at the subjects and themes above. The reason I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted to is because this book doesn’t really have a plot, or any direction for that matter.
What filled the pages for this book are the switching back and forth between Connell’s and Marianne’s perspective, through which, we see the differences between social classes, gender roles, and their attempts at trying to fit into society. The story is more interested in the character’s reality than the plot. However, these characters don’t have specific motives. Another reason why I didn’t like this book is because of the physical and emotional abuse that Marianne goes through… It seems like it is romanticized throughout the book, because Marianne’s character is built to have this fascination with abuse.
At best, Rooney makes an effort to have the characters as complicated as they can be in relation to the things surrounding them. Otherwise, Connell is an asshole, who never seemed sorry for his actions around Marianne. Why Marianne likes him at all is beyond me.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People is particularly character driven in that its characters have a unique identity in comparison to those around them. Rather than have unchanging attitudes and beliefs, it becomes evident that the two leading characters, Connell and Marianne, have many grievances with the lives they lead and with who they are as persons and as two romantically involved individuals. It becomes evident that both of their self-destructive behaviors, which manifest later in the novel, are a result of their past experiences with both one another and those around them. This is evident in how differently Connell and Marianne interact with their peers and family early in the novel compared to how they interact with them later.
While the characters are complex and do have nuances that set them apart from everyone else, more emphasis is placed on their romantic relationships than is placed on their individual mental issues. While their romantic relationship benefits greatly from the focus on it and complexifies what exactly Connell and Marianne are as a romantically involved pair, their mental health issues aren’t treated the same. In doing so, the lack of focus on mental health issues, at times, results in a simple way of thinking about mental health that is detrimental to the overall development of both characters. Each of the characters’ choices in what they want helps mitigate this issue, but it is still prevalent enough that a degree of both Connell and Marianne isn’t available to readers. True, the relationships they adopt later in the novel are powerful enough to represent these issues, but in choosing to represent them in a social context the mental issues both Connell and Marianne face become isolated events rather than private ones, which means there is an absence of another potential lens from which to view Connell and Marianne’s development which could have otherwise strengthened even more the issue both characters face.
All of these books have their own strange plots but this one was one of the few that came off more as a weird drama. These characters are about my age so I could see myself maybe seeing them around campus. Would I be friends with them, probably not. The first half of the book is more of the introduction of characters, plot, etc. We get to know Marianne and Connell who in the first few pages hook up. That’s all they do throughout the book. The whole thing is just a will they or won’t they situation.
One thing that I noticed that Sally Rooney does, based on her last book, she does not use quotation marks. I think that is supposed to be a stylistic choice, which I think is a bit innovative because it does not seem as forced. The conversations are something could that happen right in front of you. It works so well. It works a lot better that there are only a few characters and they are built so well that it is easy to tell who said what. This story is good for people who are starting out on becoming writers because it is mainly simple language but well thought out characters. It is easy to mimic.
Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams