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).
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.
Class issues shape their relationship quite a bit in high school and their early college years, but after Connell wins a prestigious scholarship (5 years of tuition and room & board), class differences become cultural and symbolic more than material. Town vs. gown issues essentially get resolved as well, with Marianne’s high school bullies maturing and improving their behavior (one even apologizes directly to her for his previous actions). Marianne’s mother and brother continue to abuse her, but eventually she finds a way to deal with that as well, and it brings her closer to Connell.
Rooney captures a certain type of college experience well: the cliquishness of first- and second-year students, the sense of dislocation, the confidence gained over time for some paralleled by the greater alienation of others. As in Conversations With Friends, there is an almost affected detachment on the part of all the young people, no matter how intense the emotion. People cry, hurt themselves, are hurt by others in deep and profound ways, but it’s all depicted and described at a distance which mirrors the alienation some young people clearly feel. Objectively, Marianne and Connell are generously endowed with social, cognitive, and/or financial capital (Connell doesn’t have money but his talent is recognized and rewarded). But they don’t feel fortunate, and the depression they separately experience is symptomatic of quite a few college students in their age and cohort.
I found some of the gender aspects of the novel troubling. Marianne’s desire to be dominated is presented in a muddled way; at first it seems to be purely a sexual preference, but then it becomes a reflection of her sense of self-worth, history of familial abuse, and the apparently total absence of love in her upbringing. I wish the text hadn’t conflated sexual desires with psychological trauma, because that plays into some harmful stereotypes.
The other gender dimension that surfaced over the course of the novel is that while both Connell and Marianne are plagued by self-doubt, anxiety, and depression, Connell’s psychological problems don’t stop him from being academically successful and able to develop longer term career goals. As the novel unfolds, we gain a good sense of what Connell wants to do with his life and how he’s developing the skills to achieve it. We see none of that with Marianne, even though we are told and shown that she is at the top of her cohort. Objectively she is better placed to pursue whatever goals she develops because she has the intellectual chops, work ethic, and financial cushion to achieve them. But she has no goals that we can see, and we’re even told at one point that if she can only aid a few people in this screwed up world, there’s no point in doing anything. Connell has both an inner and outer life that will take him into adulthood, but Marianne doesn’t. Is all of this supposed to be chalked up to her terrible childhood? That seems like an inadequate explanation to me, both textually and in terms of what women like Marianne are actually doing in the world despite the obstacles in their way.
The prose style is very similar to that in Rooney’s first novel and one she is clearly making her own. It’s detached and self-consciously affectless, and as with the previous book, there are phrases that don’t come off. But overall I think it’s successful on its own terms. There are some nice touches, like how Connell engages with literature when he first arrives at university and how it fails him when he’s in a deep depression a couple of years later.
Rooney has clearly set out to do what she intended, so in that sense the book succeeds. But it is once again a fairly narrow slice of a particular generational experience, and it sends some messages about gender that I’m not sure are intended and that undercut the novel’s tone of even-handedness. And it’s focused on personal relationships in a way that almost completely excludes the effect of events and institutions on those relationships. I understand from interviews she’s done that that is Rooney’s interest, but relationships don’t exist in a vacuum.
I can’t help but contrast this novel with Anna Burns’ Milkman, which is an even longer novel rooted in the interiority of only one character. And yet Burns weaves a complex, rich tapestry which places that single character’s experience within a much larger context, and it does so without sacrificing her singularity.