“Young people these days,” sighs a character in Sally Rooney’s “Normal People.” “I can’t get my head around your relationships.” Rooney understands young people and their relationships all too well, as evidenced in her smart and perceptive 2017 debut “Conversations With Friends.” The Irish author’s follow-up, already critically lauded on the other side of the Atlantic, revolves once again around young lovers and their bonds and entanglements. This time, though, Rooney sharpens her focus — and in turn heightens the intensity — by placing only two characters in the spotlight and showing how their love is tested by outside forces and inner conflicts.
Connell and Marianne grow up in a small town in Ireland. He is quiet yet popular, a school soccer star; she is solitary and independent-minded, dismissed as weird by her classmates. Although they affect not to know each other in school, they talk openly after it when he comes to her house to pick up his mother, who is Marianne’s family’s cleaner. During one visit a frank discussion leads to an illicit kiss. From there a secret intimacy develops — that is, until Connell rides roughshod over Marianne’s feelings, leaving her hurt and humiliated and convinced that she has been used as “a kind of private experiment.”
Later that year, the pair are reunited at Trinity College in Dublin. Now the tables have turned: Marianne is self-assured and outgoing with a cool boyfriend and a steady stream of friends, while Connell finds it hard to put himself forward and connect. Throughout university they routinely drift apart and see different people, but in time are inexorably drawn back to each other. As their studies come to an end, she succumbs to self-loathing after years of being “handed around and misused.” He shrugs off his own demons and spies new opportunities — far from Ireland, and away from Marianne.
“Normal People” is a coming-of-age tale, a campus novel, a psychological drama and a study of class and power. Above all, however, it is a love story. Any initial doubts of it amounting to nothing more than a lightweight teenage romance are swiftly dispelled. Rooney’s account of an on-off relationship spread over the course of four years is imbued with emotional depth, wit and perspicacity.
In spare, pellucid prose, she wondrously conveys passion and compassion, rawness and tenderness, erotic highs and tragic lows. Along with the many original observations of, and acute insights into, human interaction, there are spot-on depictions of quotidian reality and dazzling renderings of those rarer, more sublime moments. At one point, as Marianne stands outside in the cold, “her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake.”
Rooney’s perfectly realized characters matter to us. When she portrays them platonically as friends or soul mates or distant exes, we long for them to see sense and reunite. Rooney keeps us guessing — will they discover before it is too late that they belong together? — and in breaking their hearts she chips away at ours, too.
F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that there are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice. Rooney’s lovers challenge this. Her whole novel subverts assumptions and exceeds expectations. It is a masterpiece, pure and simple.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Sally Rooney.
Publisher: Hogarth, 273 pages $26.