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Booker Longlist Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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).

Normal People cover

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.

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The Man Booker Prize: 2018 Shortlist

I woke up very early this morning and remembered that the Booker Shortlist was being announced. The six books chosen:
  • Milkman by Anna Burns
  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
  • The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • The Long Take by Robin Robertson
While I would have loved to see Donal Ryan make the shortlist, I didn’t really expect him to. It’s a wonderful book, but it drew mixed reviews from the readers in the Booker groups I frequent at Goodreads, and it had a couple of mixed to negative reviews in the professional critical press. There wasn’t a lot of buzz around it, which shouldn’t matter but seems to. I am not entirely surprised Warlight didn’t make it. Again, the fact that Ondaatje just won the Golden Booker shouldn’t matter, but it could, and it’s not a flashy book, although I think it’s beautifully written and interestingly constructed. I’ve also seen remarks to the effect that Ondaatje has written better books (and been recognized for them), so that could have weighed against inclusion if the judges agreed. I’m happiest about The Long Take and Milkman making the list. I haven’t posted a  review for Milkman yet but it is up there with the Robertson as my top choices, ahead even of the Ryan and Ondaatje. Milkman is funny, painfully true, and fascinating. I was afraid it was too under the radar to make it, so I’m thrilled. I’m equally thrilled about the Robertson, which I hoped would make it but thought might lose out to something more conventionally novel-shaped. Read the rest of this entry »