I wasn’t looking forward to this Booker longlist entry but I was sucked in despite my misgivings. I thought it was going to be new adult written as lit fic, and to some extent it is, but it also had some insightful and thought-provoking aspects. More tightly focused and less trope-y than Conversations With Friends, it’s a classic coming-of-age university novel that is very much of this era (which makes me curious about how it will age and be regarded retrospectively).
The plot is simple. Marianne and Connell grow up in the same small town in Sligo and go to the same secondary school. Marianne comes from a wealthy, dysfunctional family and Connell is raised by a single mother. Apart from school, the two are connected because Lorraine, Connell’s mother, is Marianne’s family’s house cleaner. Both are very intelligent but Connell is content and popular at school, while Marianne is basically an outcast. These opposites become attracted to each other and embark on a secret relationship, which ends before graduation when Connell humiliates Marianne in classic teenage-boy fashion. But before their break, both had decided to apply to Trinity College Dublin, so they make their separate ways there in the fall.
At college the tables are turned. Marianne’s wealth, standoffish personality, and general air of alienated boredom make her a welcome addition to the rich college kids’ clique, while Connell’s working-class background and friendly, relatively uncomplicated disposition place him at the margins of several groups (especially because he’s not interested in joining one of the many college societies). Ironically, Marianne comes to his social rescue when they encounter each other and resolve their breach. The deep connection and sexual attraction they feel for each other resurfaces and shapes the rest of their time at Trinity.
The novel is all interiority and focuses entirely on Marianne’s and Connell’s relationships (with each other and with other people). Although both are very smart and hard-working, the reader learns almost nothing about the substance of their studies until well into the second half of the novel. Instead we read about their not-a-romance, their hookups, their other sexual and romantic relationships, and their friendships, especially Marianne’s female friendships. They break up and make up, inexorably tied to each other as friends with or without benefits. Connell has one other long-term relationship which he thinks is a healthier one but which doesn’t satisfy him as much, while Marianne has a couple of unhealthy relationships in which men treat her badly (both physically and emotionally), to some extent at her request.Read the rest of this entry »