Saffron Sener 
08 July 2019


I used to read voraciously. A trip to the bookstore became a distant memory as I finished every purchase within the next day or so. When I entered high school and weighed myself down with classes and extracurriculars, that voracity sadly dissolved; however, not without a fight. I tried and tried to read, but it became painful after my twelve-hour school days. So, I read during the summer, and only what was recommended to me – too tired to actually seek anything out, I only read what fell into my lap.

This must change, I’ve told myself. Over and over again, I’ve said that. It was not until my book-loving partner required me to get Normal People by Sally Rooney (we planned to read it together), that I felt an actual budge. Once I began, that voracity returned – three hours passed, and I was finished. I was lost, torn apart by the novel’s content, but I had done it.

Following the multi-year romance of Marianne and Connell, who we meet as Irish teenagers in secondary school and leave as young adults finishing college, Normal People is a two hundred odd page fiction that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and sat in the window of every Berkeley bookstore. This is a poignant work, almost shockingly so; Rooney is masterful in her style, weaving through two perspectives and stories with unbelievable ease. Her subject matter is so real and relatable, and therefore so engrossing – the love of Marianne and Connell is one flawed, drawn out, frustrating, yet true.

A twenty-eight year old Irish author, Sally Rooney has two published novels: Conversations With Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018). She is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin (the same university that Connell and Marianne attend). Each of her works has found critical acclaim, and her short stories are continuously featured in magazines and on websites.

Orbiting each other but often drifting apart, Marianne and Connell navigate different social statuses, economic situations, and familial pressures as they venture (sometimes together, sometimes not) into adulthood. Their problems are the problems of many – worrying about reputations, worrying about money, worrying about family, worrying about each other. Yet these struggles remain uniquely their own; Marianne is mysterious and Connell popular in one circle, while the opposite is true in others. Both seek normality yet are unable to find it. It is not until both have completely destroyed themselves and their relationship, and then come back to each other, that normality is actually found to some degree.

Their conversations are painful to the reader, excruciating in their relatability as the characters’ intentions are known yet conflicting realities are later revealed. One cannot deny Rooney’s ability to capture life and the throes of relationships (romantic, familial, platonic) with impressive accuracy. In the days since finishing Normal People, I have caught myself mentally narrating that which occurs around me in a Rooney-like way, frank and with both no feeling and too much. Description sparse, and only when necessary; interactions with people recounted with too much introspection and honesty.

Rooney brought the reader an intimate (yet at times, almost too intimate) portrait of Connell and Marianne. And frankly, I hated them. I hated them for their faults. For their mistakes. For their hesitations and worries. Moreover, I hated them for I saw parts of myself – insecure, young, grappling with the beginning and seeming ends of their lives at every change.

Normal People read like a typical romance; they meet, it’s not perfect, they drift apart and find each other again and there’s ups and downs and people in between but nevertheless, in the end, it’s true love. One does not exist without the other – there is no Connell without Marianne and vice versa. When first introduced, Marianne appears to be a quiet, complicated, interesting character. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She’s herself, and no one can take that away.

Well, Connell can. No – Connell does. (And Jamie and her brother and that one guy in Sweden.) As the book progresses, she – and Rooney – fall prey to the same conventions as typical heterosexual love stories. Marianne is Connell – loved by him, and thus within him. Who begins as a misunderstood, complex, mysterious young girl decays into a shell, an “empty space for him to fill” (242). She dissolves into him. That’s what it means to be a woman in love, right?

I felt – the whole time – like I was missing something. Was I reading it wrong? Had my many-year reading drought tainted my ability to read critically? It wasn’t until my partner agreed with my reactions that they began to feel real. I could see them manifesting between the lines. The clarity of Marianne’s manic pixie dream girlness and existence as a male’s (Connell’s) conjuring of love seemed almost too obvious to be real – and yet, it was.

Why must I watch the downfall of yet another female character as she becomes the limb of her male counterpart, hanging there, dependent, yearning, and somehow special despite having few actual personality traits? Why must Rooney, a contemporary female author, write this? Marianne’s eating disorder, family problems, and craving to be beat up seep from her like pheromones, attracting the opposite sex like flies to a (dimming) light. Why is this internally and externally imposed self-destruction glorified as Marianne’s most attractive aspects? She’s smart, she’s rich, oh, and she doesn’t eat. That’s Marianne. That’s like, all of Marianne.

And maybe that’s Rooney’s comment on manhood – fetishizing a woman’s struggles, viewing their problems as a stepping stone to saviourship, seeing damage as deepness and mystique, requiring a woman to relinquish her entire self. Rooney would be right in that respect. But if that is so then Normal People is not a novel for me – I am tired of the manic pixie dream girl, even when reworked by a female author. Any sort of commentary by Rooney on the gender dynamics of this novel is so coded that it fails to come across. The “happy ending” really seals that fate. Maybe I’m not geared to read fiction like this anymore, it’s so deep, so modern, Rooney doesn’t even put quotations around her dialogue and her women drink their coffee black. But maybe not.

Connell, the once popular, now completely isolated young man, is characterized as the perfect counterpart for this beret-wearing, book-reading young woman. In secondary school, despite being of high social status (though being the child of a working, single mother, which Rooney points out again and again as the hitch in his entire social existence), Connell somehow falls madly and deeply in love with the abrasive, edgy girl with no friends. Though he tells no one, endlessly worried of losing his reputation, his entire life is swallowed up by their companionship. That’s love for you.

Personality-wise, he’s about as shallow as Marianne. That may be a function of this novel’s style, diving right into the progression of their relationship rather than recounting their favorite food. But thank god this popular boy is actually so different from his shallow, superficial peers (they don’t read! they play sports instead! ew!) to recognize the beauty of Marianne. Just let her take off her glasses and put on some makeup – it’s John Hughes’ Breakfast Club jock Andrew and outcast Allison falling for each other all over again. Instead of the makeover, though, Marianne has to endure his embarrassment towards her and ensuing years of on-again, off-again romance,  becoming an empty body rather than a makeup-ed one.

And sex – which appears to be the only concrete way that Connell and Marianne fall into, sustain, and rekindle their love – in Normal People is treated like the ultimate battlefield by which man dominates woman. Spoiler – when she’s not with Connell in one of their broken-up periods, she falls into a series of sexual relationships hinged on being tied and beaten up. This is not to throw negativity at one’s potential sexual preferences, but Rooney so obviously and so disappointingly makes this aspect of Marianne’s sexual existence a function of her damaged self, childhood of domestic abuse, lack of Connell’s presence, and just another thing for him to save her in. Because, like the knight in shining armor, he refuses to hit her in bed when she asks him to. And though Rooney writes of how, during sex, he asserts his ownership over her (which is uncomfortable in and of itself when considered with Marianne’s shell-like existence and consistent objectification), he never uses violence, only words like “you’re going to do exactly what I say now, aren’t you?” (265). If Marianne was truly into BDSM-type sex, and it wasn’t just the expected affect of her self-destruction, then why does Rooney make Connell such a hero for refusing it?

When it comes to discussing the dynamics of Connell and Marianne’s economic statuses, Rooney stumbles. While Connell’s mother works for Marianne’s family and he himself works from a young age, Marianne lives a cushy, unconcerned life supported completely by her wealthy bloodline. Although Rooney does put effort into noting Connell’s discomfort and Marianne’s comfort with money, I was unnerved by predictability of this characterization. Of course Marianne was misunderstood, but fabulously wealthy. She’s not totally unattractive – her wallet runneth over. So, as opposites attract, of course Connell was popular but poor. Then he’s completely isolated when placed (by Marianne) into a social group of the sort of rich college kids whose parents showed them Jean-Luc Godard instead of Disney, who smoke cigarettes like they’re going out of fashion, and who really care about politics (of the poor). It could be that I’m just tired of reading love stories sustained by a dreamy, unending pocketbook, with lavish trips, paid rent, and meals out every night. But, really: could Connell and Marianne have existed without these conditions?

Certainly, it appears that I despise this novel. That’s false – truly, I enjoyed it. It sparked me back into wanting, rather than needing, to read. Rooney is, undeniably, an incredibly talented technical writer. Normal People left me so unnerved I felt the need to write this lengthy analysis, so props to her. I only wish the content matched the ability – just like her New York Times short story “Color and Light,” Normal People is limited by its mysterious, beautiful, and dangerously shallow girl caged in the eyes of the chosen, somehow special, man. In both, it is in the attention of men that Rooney’s women come to life – or, rather, simply exist. And I can’t say that isn’t disappointing coming from as popular, talented, and contemporary an author as Rooney.