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Normal People

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At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers - one they are determined to conceal.

A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.

Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.

273 pages, Hardcover

First published August 28, 2018

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About the author

Sally Rooney

34 books40.6k followers
Sally Rooney was born in 1991 and lives in Dublin, where she graduated from Trinity College. Her work has appeared in Granta, The Dublin Review, The White Review, The Stinging Fly, and the Winter Pages anthology.

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Profile Image for luce (englishified italian, devil incarnate).
1,408 reviews · 3,229 followers
February 26, 2022
EDIT: I get it. This novel is very popular and much beloved. While I recognise that Rooney has talent, I did not vibe with NP. Please, if you hate reading reviews expressing opinions/takes/impressions from your own, well, I suggest you skip this review. There are plenty of glowing reviews out there for this novel so there really is no need for you to waste your time leaving me a comment along the lines of 'you are wrong and here's why'. Also, note that I wrote this review in 2018 and not recently.

If you believe that characters who dislike themselves, shrug a lot, and say "I don't know" 24/7, are very deep and realistic, well this may be the perfect read for you.
Or if you enjoy reading about "in" authors...look no further.

If you are thinking about reading this novel, I suggest you listen to Crywank's 'Song for a Guilty Sadist' instead, since it will take you less time and you will get the same story.

While I enjoyed Rooney's style, the way in which she interweaves ordinary moments with emotionally charged ones and the uncertainty that pervades her story, I was also annoyed by how artificial her novel is. I had the impression that Rooney was trying to conjure a certain millennial "vibe" through her characters and their experiences.
However, the central figures of her novel, Connell and Marianne, lacked depth and, as stupid as it might sound, character. Their looks were emphasised in a way that made them "stand out" from others: they are skinny and beautiful, they smoke, they make languid movements, they are smart, and unlike their peers they actually care about world politics. Throughout the course of this novel we are told how DIFFERENT and SPECIAL they are.
Marianne comes from a wealthy and abusive family (we are supposed to feel bad for her), Connell was raised by his mother and suffers from bouts of anxiety and depression (we are also supposed to feel bad for him). That they have issues that they can't cope with is realistic, but what I didn't appreciate is the romanticising of their difficulties. What I didn't like is that being "alienated" is synonym of "cool" and that seeking sadomasochistic relationships is understandable/inevitable if you come from an abusive family.
Rooney handles serious issues (eg. an abusive family, depression, etc.) very badly. A book that handles trauma and self-harming incredibly well is What Red Was by Rosie Price. There we see why the characters behave in self-destructive ways, but in NP these things seem merely props.
Marianne and Connell aren't terrible people but god, they are so self-involved. Their relationship is made to appear fraught but I didn't always understand why. Drama for the sake of drama? They enter forgettable relationships with equally forgettable people but they remain fixated on each other. Why? No one knows...
Marianne is depicted by the author and the other characters as being the sort of person who does not to care about others' opinion of her but soon after a breakup with a cliched dick boyfriend she is obsessed with what people are saying about her...Connor is...intelligent? Indecisive? As interesting as a stale sandwich?!
Secondary characters and family members are barely sketched out, they have little to no purpose other than creating more "drama" for the main characters. Marianne's family was so badly written that I had a hard time taking any of them seriously. Her brother is laughably cruel and her mother is uncaring and snobbish (they are rich so...). Friends from college serve very little purpose, other than making the main characters seem "different" and "real" (they are special, not like other people).
What I disliked the most is that by the end neither Marianne or Connell show any sort of character growth. Not that I always want to read about characters who learn from their mistakes or gain some sort of insight from their experience, I can appreciate characters who keep perpetuating their 'bad' behaviour or even those who get worse or regress into 'bad' habits/behaviour. But they have to be believable. Marianne or Connell were not. They were merely an 'aesthetic', more befitting as subjects of a black and white grunge photo than anything else.
The only reason why I finished this novel is that I listened to the audiobook and the narrator managed to make this otherwise unappetising storyline sort of okay.

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Profile Image for Emily May.
1,921 reviews · 290k followers
January 22, 2019
No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.

This is going to be a polarizing book. I mean, I think I liked it. And I say "liked it" in the sense that it made me very miserable. It is a quiet character study, almost a YA novel but not quite, and it is a profoundly lonely and depressing love story.

I didn't begin by liking it. Normal People follows two characters - Marianne and Connell - through adolescence and into early adulthood, and they begin by being the kind of uber-precocious teenagers who read Proust and Marx for fun. It took a while for me to settle into their story. My initial impression was that this was going to be some kind of John Green for adults, which is not something that floats my particular boat.

Without fully realizing it though, this book had crept quietly under my skin. The relationship between Marianne and Connell is angsty, sure, but it felt painfully real. They are so flawed, marred by unlikable characteristics, and yet, I could not stop caring about them.
Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.

The story is really just about the two of them and their relationship. In high school, Marianne is a smart and wealthy girl, but is socially ostracized and emotionally abused at home, whereas Connell is working class, but very popular. Connell's mum works as a cleaner for Marianne's family. They begin a secret sexual relationship that falls apart when Connell fears his friends will find out. The compelling dynamic between them drives the story-- issues of class and social status cause much conflict.

In college, the two meet again. This time, Marianne is popular, and Connell is feeling increasingly depressed. The two of them lean on each other time and again as they move through a social world filled with social expectations. There's a bit of a When Harry Met Sally vibe, except that this book is more soul-destroying.
Nothing had meant more to Rob than the approval of others; to be thought well of, to be a person of status. He would have betrayed any confidence, any kindness, for the promise of social acceptance.

There's clear criticism of our constant need to impress and perform for others in a world that grows ever more connected. Much of the tragedy that befalls Marianne and Connell is caused by other people, peer pressure and social expectations. It is very sad to think that someone might give up who they love the most because they can't deal with how it makes them look to others.

The pair's inability to adequately communicate is frustrating but feels realistic. I was on the verge of tearing my hair out at all the things left unsaid in this book, but I think it was a good kind of frustration. The kind that comes from caring too much.

I feel like there are any number of reasons I could have hated Normal People, but I didn’t. I actually kinda loved it. It's a weird, awkward, depressing novel about a connection formed between two very different people who find exactly what they need - and perhaps a lot that they don't - in each other.

CW: sexual assault; domestic abuse; drug use; casual racism (called out); depression; anxiety; suicide & suicidal ideation.

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Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews · 2,082 followers
May 2, 2020
Sally Rooney is the real deal

Normal People has been lavished with praise from critics, longlisted for the Man Booker prize and adapted for television by the BBC. And that's just in its first week of publication!

All that attention will, no doubt, attract quite a few readers who would not ordinarily touch this subject with a barge pole. Because this book:

A) Is about young people
B) Is a love story (but not a 'romance novel')
C) Contains a fair bit of sex (which is crucial to the storytelling, btw, and is not graphic)

All of which (possibly also the fact that the author is a 27-year-old woman) means that Normal People will inevitably be dismissed by some as frivolous. It isn’t. This is a confident, accomplished and serious work.

Of Rooney’s debut, Conversations with Friends, I said in my review it ‘occasionally scrapes close to the bone’. Well, Normal People cuts to the core.

Normal People is not out to inspire, instruct, entertain or talk down to anyone, which makes it something of a refreshing anomaly in current fiction about young people. It is a novel (for anyone, young or old) that simply presents the truth of youthful experiences without the filters of nostalgia or sentimentality. It invites you to inhabit the psyche of someone else – two someone elses: Connell and Marianne – to identify with them and to feel their pain and turmoil. For the reader who connects to that, it is wracking.

The story focuses only on the pivotal moments for these two characters, jumping forward three weeks, six months, or five minutes, as needed, to excise all the uneventful bits of life and leave us with the most emotionally intense supercut possible. It follows them from high school in a small town, through their years at university in Dublin, as the dynamic between them shifts with their surroundings and social circle. They’re not officially 'together' the whole time, or even most of the time, but they always figure in each other’s lives in a significant way.

Sally Rooney writes with such precision that this all feels painfully true. She conjures the tension and emotion in a scene just from the way someone wrings out a dish sponge; she conveys the full weight of feeling from a look or a shrug. In Rooney’s imagining, Connell and Marianne as separate entities are less important than the interplay between them – their relationship dynamic and the influence each of them has on shaping the other, that’s the real stuff of this book:

"How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not."

There’s irony here, and self-conscious posturing (though not nearly as much as in CWF), but earnestness, truth and kindness as well. In addition to the central relationship are issues of class and intellectual integrity. It's a particularly astute look at the rebuild of self that teenagers undergo in the transition from school to uni, how it allows some to thrive while others stumble, and in some ways is just an illusion after all.

So there’s hype and there’s backlash to the hype, and Normal People is sure to resonate powerfully with some readers and not at all for others. If you like a minutely observed novel about people and feelings that isn’t mawkish, I'd say give it a go.
Profile Image for Trudie.
515 reviews · 547 followers
September 25, 2018
I am not sure how to write this review because I seem to be so far beyond the pale on my antipathy to this book. In simplest terms I didn't connect with this work at all and I would be best to chalk this up to a "reader/writer" mismatch and move on but I will try and articulate some of my reading experience.

Some of my perplexity with Normal People is that I just couldn't relate to the twenty something, highly educated, politically aware and cynical young adults that populate this novel. I am not sure how reflective these voices are of young Irish making their way in the world, but as presented here I found them exasperating to listen to and not particularly nuanced.
It is possible that even if I didn't enjoy the novel I might like the writing but in actual fact Rooney's style is perhaps the single biggest thing that bugged me. I found some passages of interest sandwiched between a lot of wooden dialogue and these flat descriptions ...

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people's plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others

This kind of writing really gives me nothing.

Others have cited the two dimensional nature of her secondary characters and I would concur. Barely any of them made much of an impression on me. Alan - Marianne's brother, seemed particularly badly drawn. He appears to be a key part of understanding Marianne and yet he warrants only a few pen-strokes of unexplained malice and cruelty. The opening of a wine-bottle and pouring of cups of tea receives much more page space.

I tried to understand Marianne, who seems to be both ugly and beautiful, popular and friendless. Her hinted at troubled family life was suppose to underpin her need to be a submissive. I remain unconvinced that this is really how dominance and submission works and I would think experts in BDSM might strongly take issue with some of the cliches here.

The relationship between Marianne and Connell should have kept this book afloat at the very least. The intense emotional and physical connection, the will they / won't they stay together, all the drama of YA love is here but it is in an eye-wateringly navel-gazing form. I found it all exactingly po-faced. The number of inexplicable break-ups, largely based on mis-communication was about three or four break-ups too many for me. I just wanted to yell at this novel most of the time. Say what you mean and stop being so insufferably difficult !, either split up or stay together, both your friends and I really don't care !. Marianne and Connell were of most interest to me when they started emailing each other, discussing novels and politics thus preventing them breaking up over some new emotional minutiae. Perhaps this should have been a novel of their email exchanges.

Oh well, I guess I will never be a Rooney fan and I have doubtless missed the point of this book entirely but that is ok not every book is for every reader.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,177 reviews · 1,067 followers
June 7, 2020
Man booker prize long list nominee and Costa book awards nominee This is a book that has many admirers and sadly it didn't work for me and while I would love to agree with all the judges on this one I only struggled to the end because it was a bookclub read. It is difficult to go against the grain on a book that is nominated for so many awards. So as always you need to judge for yourself because books fit people differently

Quite simply this book didn't Fit Me. I really have no interest in reading about 18-20 something year college kid's on/off sexual relationships where they seem to only exist in their own little complex bubble and this book felt like a bubble. It is described as "exquisite love stroy" which I honestly found nothing exquisite or no love in this one.

The characters of Connell and Marianne were dislikable and boring and the on / off, will they wont they "relationship" became repetitive reading. The only character which I liked and felt any connection with in the novel was Lorraine.

Perhaps this is more suited for a younger audience where they connect with the college scene or for readers who like complex relationship stories but for me this was a struggle from start to finish.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,479 reviews · 29.7k followers
May 2, 2020
wow. one of the most frustrating, but humanising, books i have read in a long time. for sure. i feel so exhausted after reading this, but i think that may have been the authors intent. its shows that normal people living normal lives can be quite tiresome. for example:

- the writing lacks quotation marks, which makes the dialogue difficult to decipher. which could be seen as support for the idea that life is just as messy as the books formatting and communication sometimes takes effort to understand.

- there are massive jumps in the timeline with a lot of backtracking, so much so that the drastic shifts are jarring. which could be seen as exemplifying the notion that people change over time and friendships are bound to alter.

things like this will polarise readers. either its too much and unenjoyable, or its a work of genius and adds depth to the storytelling. i think it really depends on the readers interpretation and mood. and like the indecisive creature that i am, im quite torn down the middle.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
525 reviews · 56.7k followers
December 16, 2021
Whoever was responsible for the marketing of this book deserves a raise because they managed to make 600k+ people read this incredibly boring story.

Youtube Review: https://youtu.be/3MKcVnfTlf4?t=475

I've been joking around and explaining not loving most Memoirs/Autobiographies and some Contemporaries by stating that "I just don't really care about people".

Clearly, it's far from the truth but... I'll make an exemption for these people.

Didn't care one bit.

Not sure if I'll watch the tv show...

Profile Image for Cindy.
407 reviews · 109k followers
July 24, 2020
The book aims to hit emotional poignancy by showing how people weave in and out of your life and exploring themes of first love, class differences, and depression; but ultimately the narrative boils down to two co-dependent people hooking up throughout the years, which doesn't really add anything new. Turn to your social circle IRL and you'll find the same story.
Profile Image for Caitlin.
23 reviews · 128 followers
October 29, 2018
I picked up my cup of coffee and took a large gulp, swishing the liquid around in my mouth a little before swallowing. Two stars, I think. I touched my hand to my face and rubbed my nose. I clicked the two star rating. I closed my eyes and nodded, breathing out slowly. Yes, two stars.
Profile Image for Chelsea (chelseadolling reads).
1,471 reviews · 19.1k followers
April 17, 2019
I genuinely have no idea how to rate this. I LOVED the first half, felt lukewarm towards the middle, and then hated the ending????? The characters had so much chemistry but they refused to communicate I just 😤

TW: sexual assault, domestic violence, depression, suicide
Profile Image for Ali Abdaal.
17 reviews · 32.5k followers
April 28, 2020
Started reading at 11pm while on an evening shift at work. Drove home at midnight, arrived at 00:40. Got into bed and kept reading, finished at 04:15. I’m kicking myself for ruining the next day but do I regret it? Absolutely not.
Profile Image for Kat.
256 reviews · 78.7k followers
June 14, 2022
i am but a lonely sad slutty bitchy whore
Profile Image for emma.
1,785 reviews · 43k followers
April 16, 2022
“Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.”

The first time I read this, I rated it three stars. While this can be considered relatively high for me (don’t check my average rating, it will only bring despair to us both), it is approximately two stars lower than what I expected to rate this book.

I adore Rooney’s prior novel, Conversations with Friends, to a degree that is almost disturbing. Or possibly just disturbing.

But this one fell flat for me. In a way that was difficult, at the time, to put a finger on. While I encountered the same stellar, almost painful writing, and the same reading experience so all-encompassing that it felt like it changed something fundamental about me, while I loved the characters so much that my concern for their well-being stressed me out, I did not come away from this book in love.

I put a finger on what the thing keeping me and this book away from eternal love and matrimony was.

It’s because I was sad.

The first time I read this, I was so wrapped up in the characters and their lives and my concern for them that I overlooked...everything else. To me this was the story of Connell and Marianne and nothing else, and while I adored them both I missed out on the multitude of nuances and themes and symbols at play. The treatment of privilege and wealth, the examination of capitalism through relationships, the look at what love and self-worth mean, the submission and sometimes humiliation that is love.

This is a gorgeous book, and a beautifully written one, and the second read of this enthralled me so much I lived in the story for a week.

For once, I’m at a loss for what else to say.

Bottom line: I was wrong, okay!!! There’s a first time for everything.

p.s. In the original review I say that I'll never reread this book. That wrongness counts as the same one.

reread 2 updates

i am swiftly abandoning this reread because i'm not enjoying it and i'm scared.

update: resuming in light of how soon sally rooney's next book is coming out. still scared.

update to the update: this stays 4 stars!

reread pre-review

raising this from 3 to 4 stars upon reread, so guess i have to rewrite this review.

oh, the twists and turns life takes.

review to come / 4 stars

reread 1 updates

maybe someday i will be the kind of person who doesn't take every excuse to reread, but today is not that day

original review

When I finished this book, I didn’t even rate it. I couldn’t. I had no clue how to even approach such a thing.

I still don’t.

That’s because I loved reading every single word of this (because every single word of this was written by Sally Rooney), but I also, in a much more real way, did not enjoy at all.

Conversations with Friends, which I five starred, reread just a few months after my first read, and have not stopped thinking about, is not an easy book to read. I adore it, but I did not enjoy every second of it.

Far from it, actually. That book’s characters are part of my heart, but I didn’t necessarily like them. I felt intensely and deeply known by its story, and that process doesn’t necessarily feel like a walk in a park.

Well, maybe it is. But on one of those days where when you first go outside the temperature is perfect in a long-sleeve shirt, but then you spend every minute outside growing slightly chillier to the point of discomfort. And you’re excited to see the park has little ice-cream carts, but then you realize the process of eating the ice cream ultimately won’t live up to your imagining of it, and you don’t really like ice cream all that much anyway.

If that’s Conversations with Friends…

Normal People is a walk in a park during a blizzard. Without a jacket. And to distract yourself you have an ongoing internal monologue that’s actually sort of brilliant, you’re in rare form, and that’s great and all but it’s not quite enough to distract from the fact that all of this seems pointless and rather painful.

It really seems to me that Rooney abandoned the gorgeous, deep characterizations and slow-moving stories of Conversations in favor of making characters vessels for themes.

And I’ve simply never been that kind of a reader. I read FOR the characters, not around them.

I didn’t much care for Connell and Marianne, nor their romance (if you can call it that). I couldn’t click with their arcs or their escapades or much of anything, besides Rooney’s writing. (Which was unchangedly amazing and possibly even better.)

There were also some things about this that made me feel...icky. Sexual submission (specifically Marianne’s) is used as a metaphor here, and never kindly. This behavior of hers is presented as negative, usually, but it’s also inarguable that Marianne is submissive in her relationship with Connell, and that is never resolved. Connell feels unhappy several times over about the degree of her power over her, and while they return to their relationship contentedly towards the end, this is not at all resolved.

I missed the lovely, tied-strings ending of Conversations.

Conversations made me feel heard, made my heart and brain feel full, and Normal People made me feel...almost dumb. As if I was missing something that would have helped me put it all together, and without it of course it felt incomplete, silly, because I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to complete it.

It’s possible this just isn’t the book I needed, when Conversations with Friends certainly was.

It was still written by Sally Rooney, though.

Bottom line: I will never reread this. Also I desperately need more Rooney.

Update: I reread.


i......cannot even rate this right now.

review to come, when i regain the ability to think

tbr review

i want Sally Rooney to write my internal monologue
Profile Image for Yun.
505 reviews · 18.1k followers
November 17, 2021
Normal People starts out beautifully. Marianne is a loner in high school with no friends, while Connell is the popular football player. His mom works as a cleaner at Marianne's house, so they run into each other when he stops by to pick up his mom. Over time, they start to thaw around each other, growing closer as they realize that they can be their true selves when they are together.

Rooney captures so well the vulnerability and awkwardness of teenage years, along with its exuberance and infinite possibility. It was sweet to follow along to Marianne and Cornell's developing relationship. Even though there is the stress of school and the pressure of being teenagers, when they are alone together, they can be free to express themselves and be who they really are.

Then they are off to college, and the dynamics change. Marianne becomes the popular one, and Connell becomes the loner with no friends. At this point, I start to realize Rooney captures a very black and white version of high school and college. You are either part of the popular obnoxious crowd or you are a nobody with no friends, and there is nothing in between. And everyone's ultimate goal was to be in the popular crowd. But that isn't the school experience I remember, so it became harder and harder for me to connect with this book. In my experience, people had several different groups of friends, and no one liked obnoxious people. Most were working so hard that they didn't have time to worry about popularity and how others regarded them, especially in college.

This story has a very YA feel to it, where the characters are filled with angst and lack emotional maturity. While that made sense when Marianne and Connell were in high school, as the story progressed through their college years, it didn't anymore. The two seem to love each other, and yet, they are so sensitive to perceived slights that innocent conversations would quickly escalate to a breakup. Honest communication would clear this up immediately, but they don't do that. Instead, they circle and prod each other until they are back together again. Then the cycle repeats. It's all very dramatic, but it left me pretty apathetic by the end of the book.

This book also tackles the subject of abuse, but I think it was a missed opportunity here. Rooney portrays abuse as if some people just want to be abused, so they will let anyone abuse them, and even go around looking for it until they find it. That's not right. Victims have trouble escaping because abusers are often the people they love most, who treat them well most of the time and express regret after an incident. But there is no love or good treatment in this book, so it doesn't make sense that the victim would just put up with it.

In the end, I thought the first half of this book was wonderful, but everything stagnated in the second half. The main characters never really grew up, so they repeated the same mistakes over and over again. Their lack of maturity and insight into themselves and their relationships grated on me. I went into this book with really high hopes, but ultimately it didn't live up to its potential.
Profile Image for Danielle.
779 reviews · 366 followers
June 23, 2020
What?! The.... what?! 😬😬😬😬 This book has been very publicized with the new Hulu adaptation and all. I for one, was looking forward to reading this one. Along with everyone else (judging by how long I waited in the library queue😡). Sadly, it didn’t live up to the hype for me. ☹️These characters were not likable. They both have clear issues, but I’ve read plenty of books where the characters are flawed but you still root for them in the end. And don’t even get me started on the ending. 🙄
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,402 reviews · 8,129 followers
May 7, 2020
Let it be known that I found this book both exhilarating and almost unbearably frustrating. About halfway through the book I literally lied down on my couch and screamed to my empty apartment, “Connell, you are such an incompetent communicator, I swear to God herself if you don’t help yourself I’m going to loathe every person named Connell I ever encounter for the rest of my life.” Even though I’m giving this book 2 stars, it’s more out of how invested I felt in the characters and how little I felt Sally Rooney capitalized on their potential, and not out boredom – I felt anything but bored reading this novel.

I will start with what I liked about Normal People before I continue roasting Connell. Now having read both Conversations with Friends and Normal People, I find Rooney’s dialogue so, so sharp and entertaining. It’s witty and interesting and realistic, smart yet sincere enough so that it rarely feels pretentious. Some combination of how she writes dialogue and scenes is just so compelling, like I felt propelled to keep reading even when I felt tired of Connell and Marianne and their poor choices. Rooney also weaves in astute commentary about class and socioeconomic status. A few of the passages about class really made me pause and reflect on my own socioeconomic privilege, which I appreciate. At the same time, my best friend pointed out how ultimately Marianne and Connell’s whiteness both afford them the opportunity to be continually mediocre in ways that people of color are often not given, which I agree with.

Which brings me to my main critique of this book: Connell and Marianne’s relationship felt so, so annoying and inhibiting. It honestly felt like reading an interpersonal train wreck that I could not look away from, even though I would have much rather looked at anything else (e.g., attractive actors like Steven Yeun, BlackPink music videos, the ceiling of my apartment, etc.) On one hand, I totally get and appreciate that people miscommunicate with one another and experiencing or working through miscommunications is part of life. But Connell and Marianne’s miscommunication literally drives the plot of this book for like, the first 200 pages, and even after that they never really have an explicit conversation about their communication and its indirectness? The majority of this book felt like: Marianne and Connell are intimate, then they have a miscommunication (probably caused by Connell), then they somehow reunite and are intimate again, but then they have another miscommunication (also probably Connell’s fault, like yes I get class factors into this but dang he’s a poor communicator), then they’re intimate, then they miscommunicate, etc. until the end.

Finally, I felt like Marianne’s character had so much unexplored depth and potential. She goes through so much: abandonment, familial abuse, trauma and disordered eating, to name a few. Rooney did such a nice job showing some of the effects of her experiences on her psyche and view of relationships. Yet, instead of really going deeper into her struggles or her potential path to healing, Rooney dedicates the majority of the book to Marianne’s relationship with Connell, which I found almost insulting to Marianne’s character. I recognize I may be being a bit harsh here, on one hand I get that Marianne is desperate for some form of healthy connection as we all are to some extent, yet I so, so wish Rooney had given Marianne the chance to heal or develop more within the scope of the novel, so we could see that on the page and feel that hope for her. Instead, toward the very end of the book, Marianne essentially attributes all the goodness in her life to Connell, which made me blanch a little (while sitting on the same couch in which I cursed Connell’s name).

Despite my 2-star rating of this novel and my 3-star rating of Conversations with Friends, I still feel somewhat compelled to try out whatever book Rooney publishes next, just because of the sheer addictiveness of her dialogue. There is some quality content in Normal People, about consent and power within sex, about mental health and help-seeking as well. I wish there had been more growth for these characters, outside of their relationship, especially for Marianne.
Profile Image for Caroline .
406 reviews · 550 followers
April 25, 2019

This is one of the most overrated books I've read in a long time, and I'm stunned it was long-listed for the Women's prize and the Man Booker (but then, I usually really dislike what's chosen for that). The critics are gushing over it too. A professional review I saw in “Book Page” calls it “wise and wondrous.” I ask this: How? How is Rooney’s message “wise”? Show me what’s “wondrous.” I’ve read wondrous and wise many times before. Those are the transportive books I never forget. They overwhelm me in the best way. Everything about Normal People underwhelmed me.

Though Rooney’s simplistic prose makes Normal People very easy to read, the book is poorly organized, overly sexual, plot-less, and ultimately, never comes together in a satisfying way. Considering how ordinary, often boring, most people’s lives are, her book actually is about “normal people,” but I expect authors to dress up the everyday. I expect tension, some drama, maybe even a little suspense. I need a plot with a compelling reason for being. Normal people’s lives don’t make for good stories as they are; they require tinkering. A story about two friends-with-benefits who are confused about what they mean to each other isn’t a story. It’s merely the rough outline for a layered, more meaningful story.

Rooney’s intention was a story about miscommunication between close friends as they grow and have various life experiences--except there is no miscommunication. The characters are clear about how they feel. They profess their love for each other more than once. They have sex all the time. They show each other care and consideration. What I saw was inexplicable hesitance. In high school, Marianne is unpopular and rich; Connell is popular and poor, so early on, this difference drives their hesitance and makes sense. I thought then that Normal People was going to be an exploration of how class and social difference can harm a relationship, a kind of contemporary “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead, Rooney dropped this as soon as the characters move on to college, and their previous hesitance no longer makes sense.

Where these characters’ class differences are concerned, development is very shallow. Rooney didn’t illustrate how Marianne is unpopular and Connell popular or how Marianne is rich and Connell poor. She said that Marianne lives in a big house; she showed Connell’s housekeeper mother working for Marianne’s family a few times. That’s it, and Rooney could just as easily have made them the same level of popular and of the same class.

I was continually confused about or forgot entirely most of the secondary characters because none have distinguishing features or much, if anything, to do. Marianne’s mother isn’t shown, just talked about matter-of-factly a few times. A cruel brother pops up here and there to dole out cruelty, then disappears. A boyfriend is callous and doesn’t stick around long enough to do anything interesting. A sub-plot about abuse is mildly intriguing but is apropos of nothing and ends in a flash. They all tease, hinting at Normal People’s unrealized potential to be phenomenal.

Of course, normal people have lives that can change drastically and in unpredictable and sad ways, but translating that to the page necessitates a concrete story arc. I understand why some critics have called this book “stream-of-consciousness.” Rooney didn’t employ that writing technique, but the events, jumping as they do from one disconnected thing to the next, flashing backward and forward confusingly, are stream-of-consciousness in plot form. As a writing style, stream-of-consciousness is horrible, but in plot form it’s disastrous. I’ll go ahead and give Rooney another try with Conversations with Friends but with the lowest expectations.
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,069 reviews · 38.2k followers
February 15, 2022
Wow! Check out Hulu’s marvelous adaptation! They did amazing job by adapting this lyrical, poignant, sad and realistic story with remarkable, heartfelt performances! It is a real soul crusher, heartbreaker! Get ready to set your ugly cries free!!!!

This really reminded me of those tear jerkers, Oh God I cannot breathe, all my happiness swept away by emotional vampires vacuum cleaners inc., come on, that’s kind of nerve bending story that one of the protagonist has to die from a deadly disease ( or both of them needed to die sometimes! Oh no another crying torrent coming up! I cannot hold it! I can’t)or one of them has to commit suicide kind of, depressive, sad, exhausting, giving you anxiety attacks kind of John Green books. (After looking for Alaska, I felt the a dark cloud always following me for one month and my husband fed me with soap and Chardonnay, as you can imagine I couldn’t eat solid food at least two months because I bit the pages of the book and chewed so hard, destroyed my dental implements!!!)

So yes this book is sad, horrifyingly bringing your dark clouds and vultures above your head and interesting fact is nobody dies! But yes there are so many heavy, harsh, heart wrenching, brain cell boiling issues make you feel like hit by a truck several times, then suffered from waterboarding and torture conducted by American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman and finally thrown away into the swamp,eaten by crocodiles. The characters deal with drug addiction, bullying, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, severe depression and it is really heartbreaking to see them not to have a regular teenager lives.

And you know what after all those torturous feelings, my kindest part of soul( also my masochist brain cells and my vulnerable heart) loved those two characters, Connell and Marianne and witnessed their literally growing up, their adolescence and early adulthood times, forming friendship, special- sensitive bound. At first when they were in high school, Marianne is outcast, social pariah, bullied by mean girls as Connell is shiny, popular star of the school community. The part he didn’t take her to the prom was harsh, mean move and Connell lost his all his brownie points and earned slapping contest championship’s high rated asshole statue.

But when they were in college, the balances were changed now Marianne is intellectual, independent, smart social queen and Connell loses his spotlight and sentenced to be an ordinary, invisible college boy which makes him more depressed and lonely.

Their friends-lovers- again friends- again lovers kind of complex relationship and their story’s revelation should be called : “Restrained screams” or “Unsaid Words” , or “Bottled Up Emotions!” or “I think I’m really pissed off those two characters so much for breaking my heart !”
I know the realistic conclusion was necessary, logical, reasonable but it doesn’t mean it is not hurting you so much!

As a result, if you can deal with feeling blue by reading sad, sad, sad, OH GOD WHY THE HELL I CARED SO MUCH ABOUT THOSE CHARACTERS kind of book, this is just for you.

I liked the captivating, realistic, poignant story telling and I truly accepted those broken, flawed, complex characters but I think sometimes their story made me suffocated a little. This is a good book but not my first choice of reading

Profile Image for Ariel.
301 reviews · 64.2k followers
May 27, 2020
There were lines that swept me away, the way the timeline was structured moved the story forward in such a powerful and exceptional way, reading the story felt like the way we tell our lives to ourselves, highlighting the moments we've decided are pivotal, but all together I felt depressed and frustrated with the characters and their repetition and their decisions. But I will definitely try Rooney again!
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,850 reviews · 34.9k followers
May 21, 2019
I had been influenced by a friend - whom I adore & respect - by her 1 star review.... way before this book started gaining momentum and hit the stores a month ago.
This book wasn’t for my friend - but it sure was for me.

I’ve own an ‘Advance Reader’s Edition’, of Sally Rooney’s paper copy for a year and a half. It sat on my shelf, unread.

Rooney’s first novel “Conversations With Friends”, was wonderful.

I admit having a thing for the type of writer Sally Rooney is:
*Addicting* thought-provoking reading for me. “Normal People” is contemporary - romantic-tragic - comic - fresh - psychologically sharp - emotional - and very perceptive.
Rooney leaves me lingering in her characters. They are flawed and frustrated.
I ‘felt’ flawed and frustrated reading it! At times I wanted to scream at the characters - other times my heart just broke.

I knew I wanted to read this novel. I even knew it would most likely drive me into my head. ( it did).
I’m not sure why I didn’t open it last year.
The book-cover alone has that ‘curl-up-and-get- sucked-in- feeling’, to it.
And that’s exactly what happened.
I will never doubt my own gut desire again when it comes to a Sally Rooney novel.
I’m a fan here to stay.
Totally love what she creates.

SOMETHING HAS SHIFTED IN ME, too, with respect to romance novels. I can no longer say...
“Oh, I don’t read romance novels”... It depends...
Heck, “Crime and Punishment”, had romance. Loaded with power and cruelty... but still some romance.
“East of Eden”, by John Steinbeck was filled with juicy romance...( destructive force)... but still...lust and romance was present.
Helen Hoang’s book, “The Kiss Quotient”, more modern, had romance written all over it. I loved it, too.

Laugh at me if you wish...
but in the same way that I got hooked on the two main characters, ( Tessa and Hardin), in Anna Todd’s “After Series”.....( also a young author like Sally Rooney)....
I was hooked on the relationship’ between Connell and Marianne in “Normal People”.
I’m sure that Rooney would not turn this book into a series… but if she did, I’d read it.

The electricity and entanglement between this Connell and Marianne - was soooo complex. I wanted to join their conversations about their families—about the way each felt about themselves, and each other.... and all the things that were happening to them.
When I finished the last page, my mind continued swimming in thoughts.
Most, I was sad to leave them.

Soooo many fabulous sentences - page after page. Gorgeous reflective and intimate writing.
Sally Rooney is an ‘it’ author for me.

LOVED IT!!!! ....
Ha... if you can’t tell.

I’ll end with one expert:
“All these years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same pot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions”.

Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,162 reviews · 9,041 followers
November 16, 2019
I thought I’d do the Goodreads Summer Reading Challenge, even though it’s just about winter here in Sherwood. But I think I’ll get away with it, you never see any police around here from one year to the next. Anyway, standards really aren’t what they were, I don’t even think anyone would care. In the old days if you did a summer reading challenge in winter you’d be out the door so fast your feet wouldn’t touch the ground. But these days people have neck tattoos and name their children after brands of paint remover so you can get away with anything.

When I looked at the categories of the reading challenge I had to ditch a couple – “Read a Goodreads Choice Winner” was one – I mean, sorry Goodreads, not to eat the hand that feeds you and all but those Choice Awards are not my cup of tea at all. Fortunately the other categories fit neatly on to several stubborn denizens of my real life to be read shelves, so off I go.

The category I’m doing here is “Read a ‘most read’ book” so I consulted the list and I found a copy of one of these popular works in my local Oxfam, and Normal People it is.


This turned out to be a kind of romance but at least it was the unromantic modern version, where we follow a couple from school (she’s rich and unpopular, he’s working class and beloved by all) to university (where it’s the other way round suddenly) and during this long peregrination they’re on-and-off shagging and loving and BFFing and pinging from one thing to the other like pinballs whilst at the same time recoiling in horror from acknowledging the plain fact that they’re made for each other, so they attempt and fail to have actual real boy/girlfriends and the real boy/girlfriends have no idea what’s really going on so this golden couple of Marianne and Connell have a permanent status of IT’S COMPLICATED.

They have angst in their pangst.

The short version of all that is to say that Normal People is the unfunny updated version of When Harry Met Sally or that it’s like if Ross and Rachel had absolutely no sense of humour or any charm at all and were all strictly gloomsville I-am-suffering because life is suffering, woe is us, woe is all of us.


In the middle of this wall to wall fraughtness and gnashing of laptops we get to find out that the lovely Marianne has a masochistic streak. When she’s not with Connell she likes her boyfriends to beat her up.

I think it’s now possible to construct a rough and ready scale of female masochism using novels I happen to have read or movies seen. Here are seven female protagonists rated out of ten on the masochism scale

Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey...………………………….3
Eileen Dunlop in Eileen......................................................…….4
Lee Holloway in Secretary...………………...…………………………...6
Marianne Sheridan in Normal People...…………………………….7
Nora in Topping from Below ......……………………......…...……….8
Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher...……………………......………..9
O in Story of O...…...…………………………...…………………………….10

O is the gold standard of female masochism. I can’t see O ever being beaten.


The soundtrack to Normal People I think would be a jarring mixture of Kraftwerk, Leonard Cohen and late Billie Holliday, when her voice was all hoarse and ruined. What Normal People does is to describe at length a hot mess of a relationship in cool, affectless sentences, some of which go way too far with their cool and affectlessness

The outside door closes and Marianne re-enters the kitchen. She rinses her water glass and leaves it upside down on the draining board.

Many pages later

The water from the tap got warmer and Marianne put the plug in the sink and squeezed a little dish soap onto a sponge.

And many pages later

Marianne drank a single cup of black coffee and ordered a croissant which she didn’t finish. Connell had a large ham-and-cheese omelette with two slices of buttered toast, and tea with milk in it.

Meanwhile, our tall handsome working class star student Connell suffers from a book-length inarticulacy that is distressing to witness. He’s all “that was weird”, “I don’t know”, “I’ll have to think about it”, “Kind of” and “That was weird”.

As regards the plot, there’s not much to see here, it’s really just beads on a string. One thing - I had a problem with Marianne’s family, only a mother and a brother, but they both seem to hate her, for reasons never explained. I mean, give us a hint, Sally. Just a little hint. But you know what, I read this in two big gulps, it was weirdly compelling, similar to another much beloved and not that great campus novel The Secret History. So that’s something. I read many novels that I find extremely putdownable and unpickupable. This was not one of those.


It’s complicated.

2.5 stars.
Profile Image for Jaidee .
560 reviews · 1,024 followers
January 13, 2021
1.5 "banal, extraneous, pretentious" stars !!!

2020 Read I was Most Afraid to Dislike Award (not quite hate this year)

I will likely piss some people off with this mini-review but WTF was that ?

I am really astonished that this has been nominated for so many prizes. The writing was plainer than brown paper, the psychologies were moderately inconsistent and the minutiae were so utterly unnecessary.

This went on and on and on about two insecurely attached teens that try desperately to love and grow. Except except....oh for fuck's sake....I am just glad its done !!

Ms. Rooney this could have had a really cool short story or a novella perhaps but I felt like a masochist wanting to finish this and I did...and I am glad it's finito.

Please do not write a sequel because you will likely take up nominations that other books should
have gotten. No matter how many people urge me to read the sequel I will decline and wish the best for both Connell and Marianne. Off with ya both !!

Profile Image for Ava.
14 reviews · 29.9k followers
July 11, 2021
In short, I find this book to be refreshingly real. Never have I read a young-adult romance book that feels so realistic to what happens in real life sometimes. It's not always boy meets girl and they live happily together with hardly any issues. This book has depth and complexity, which sometimes is lacking in romance books. The interactions and conversations that Rooney writes about feels so real and true. I loved how she touches on real issues that young adults experience as they enter a new era of life (college). While reading I kept wondering.. "Will they even end up together?" Both Connel and Marianne (the main characters) are exploring new intimate and sexual relationships outside of their own. This is a compelling modern love story, one that deserves all of the attention it gets.
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,378 reviews · 2,181 followers
June 10, 2019
I am either going to need new eyes or eye sockets because for the entire 266 pages I could not stop rolling my eyes....

I try not to attempt to write "book reviews" when I am mad because more than likely I will say something I will regret or just be super mean. In this instant I have to because I am so mad and so underwhelmed by this read and I want the hours I spent reading it back. #RefundOnTime

I try not to fall for the book hype but the hype around Normal People was relentless. I could not open Bookstagram and not see it and the RAVING reviews. In typical #BookstagramMadeMeDoIt I succumbed and read the book and I am kicking myself for doing so because this was not worth the hype.

Normal People follows the lives of Connell and Marianne from their high school days to college. In High School Connell was popular and fully immersed into his social life and group of friends. Marianne was the opposite. Marianne and Connell ended up bein together but Connell didn't want anyone to know because it would affect his social standing. *roll eyes*… I mean seriously..... Anyway, fast forward to college and the tables turn, Marianne is now the belle of the ball and Connell is finding it hard to make friends of his own or assimilate to college life. Throughout high school and college Marianne and Connell are always finding a way back to each other....

If you are planning on reading this book, let me put you out of your misery. The ENTIRE book is Connell and Marianne going from, I want to be with you... I don't want to be with you... lets have sex.... I am not sure you love me.... I didn't say exactly what I mean two months ago, this is what I meant.... more I want to be with you... REPEAT 10 TIMES.

I understand if the break-ups were because of groundbreaking things, they weren't. It was because of miscommunication and these grown ass individuals refusing to open their mouths and say exactly what they are thinking, feeling or asking. It was FRUSTRATING. SO FRUSTATING. Also this lead to zero character growth because up to the end of the book theres still miscommunication. Also I did not care for any of these characters they were so one dimensional and underwhelming.

What a boring book. Ugh.

Save yourself and your time, go read something else.
Profile Image for Meredith (Slowly Catching Up).
771 reviews · 12.1k followers
August 24, 2019
Uncomfortable and Provocative

In Normal People, Sally Rooney tells the story of two deeply damaged people who develop an intense relationship that transcends the norms.

Connell and Marianne start a secret romantic relationship while in high school. Connell is the popular jock who secretly cares what everyone thinks about him. Marianne is the school pariah--the girl who people create myths about. While they both feel alone and misunderstood, together they understand not only one another, but also themselves. When they start University, their roles reverse. No longer forced to keep their relationship a secret, they have other barriers to face--many which are dark and daunting. Both begin to spiral. It is only when they are together that they can face themselves and the world around them.

Normal People could have been a whiny, angsty read about two very self-absorbed 18-to twenty-somethings, but the narrative structure and Rooney's writing elevates the characters and story to another level.

The narrative is told through the inner workings of Connell and Marianne’s minds. The reader is privy to their issues and disturbing thoughts. They are awkward and flawed characters, which made them feel very real. I was hoping for more growth, but the glimpse of hope at the end helped me realize that Connell and Marianne were ready to face the future. This is a very dark and disturbing read with some light at the end. While I came to care about Connell and Marianne’s characters, I wouldn’t want to read this again!

“I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.”
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
7 books · 1,483 followers
May 7, 2020
This book is amazing, kinetic, insightful, and fun. It feels ferociously of the moment, yes, but it also has a timelessness all its own. Cut through the hype - cut through the show. Rooney's time management is stellar (every new chapter is a time jump ahead), both perspectives are great (every chapter alternates between our two leads, with the attendant misunderstandings of a really good rom-com), and the characters behave like real humans. Excellent supporting cast too, which is a rare treat. There are issues, sure, but this is a pleasure machine.
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
734 reviews · 5,021 followers
December 3, 2022
Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

The directions our lives take are often shaped by those around us, particularly actions made out of love. Normal People, the second novel by the acclaimed writer Sally Rooney, is a moving narrative of the steps and missteps of young love as two people grow into themselves in a troubled world of class divide and social pressures. The book follows Connell and Marriane from their first days as secret lovers in high school through their tumultuous friendship--often sexual--at Trinity College, Dublin. Normal People is at its best when addressing the social issues of class, which she brilliantly uses sex as a medium to elaborate on the power dynamics and dehumanizations of capitalism. While there are a few problematic moments regarding Marianne’s preference towards submission that seems to disregard her autonomy in her own sexuality and assume that the preference is the hallmark of being “damaged”, Rooney manages to very accurately describe modern love in a way that expresses the complexities in all their untidy beauty, as well as the social posturing and emotions of college years. Through using sex as a navigational device across society and told in a sparse, matter-of-fact style that doesn’t impose an authorial judgement over the events in favor of acknowledging the reader’s ability in being able to decode for themselves, Normal People is a success that is nearly impossible to put down.

Great news, Rooney more that lives up to the hype. The press releases marketed Irish writer Sally Rooney as the “first great millennial novelist”--a fairly eye-rolling label clearly intended to hit nerves and spark conversation in what also seems a constant attempt from the gatekeepers of older generations to minimize or infantilize the millennial generation--and her name has achieved pop-culture accolades recalling Elena Ferrante from a few years ago. Even Taylor Swift recently came out of the woods to recommend Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends. Speaking of eye-rolling marketing, Conversations was hailed as the “Salinger of the Snapchat Generation,” which seems like something impossible to proclaim unironically. In all this misguided and lazy-label hype that seems half intent on wishing for her downfall, Rooney is an utter delight to read and Normal People is a wonderful achievement. If she is a "Salinger of Snapchat"? That is up to you to decide (personally I hate that label too much to make a judgement call), but is Normal People an original and insightful accomplishment? Definitely.

Normal People begins with Connell and Marianne in high school as what seems like caricatures of themselves. If initially their characters feel a touch cliche, it is because we are all a bit of a cliche at that age. Connell is the smart, athletic type concerned how others think on him whereas Marianne is an outcast who is considered strange for daring to be an intellectual woman and not caring what others think of her (okay, maybe it is a little overly cliche, but bear with me here). After a secret relationship--Connell being concerned his friends will know they are sleeping together in a way that is outright abusive--they part ways only to reunite at Trinity College where now Connell is the quiet outsider and Marianne the center of attention. A turning of the tables he deserves as in high school he had a sense his social status made him too good for her and he deeply hurt her because of it as ‘ his attraction to her felt terrifying, like an oncoming train, and he threw her under it’. The novel launches from here into many turnings-of-the-table, complicated friendships and near-misses, with each seemingly caught in each others gravity no matter what they do or who they are with.

It's funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we're at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.

It is truly moving seeing the ways a person’s trajectory in life can be so shaped by those around them. Being set at the start of this decade, the artifacts of the era--such as a scene discussing economic policy while listening to the first Vampire Weekend album--were deeply nostalgic for me and reminded me what life was like in the age of the characters. While some might decry them as overdramatic or bold representations of themselves, remembering who you were at the age of 19 and all the social posturing of that period is a good way to really appreciate how well Rooney captures the age frame of her characters. The social dynamics of a college campus are really well done. Marianne, for example, is honestly interested and invested in social justice and politics, but a girlfriend of Connell’s assumes her discussions about it at parties as a grab for attention. Connell, on the other hand, is very well read but doesn’t name drop books the way others do and is suspected of being uncultured and dumb by Marianne’s male make-a-show-of-being-cultured friends (you know the type: the guy that will tell you information about Ian Curtis without you asking, corrects someone’s pronunciation of Sarte, and casually leaves work-in-progress art lying around but acts annoyed if you comment on it, as a friend recently put it).
He did gradually start to wonder why all their classroom discussions were so abstract and lacking in textual detail, and eventually he realised that most people were not actually doing the reading. They were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read.

The society at the Uni is very much indicative of social class, Connell at one point telling his therapist he has actually witnessed students argue over which of their father’s make more money. Being a working class outsider, or a ‘culchie’ as the slang goes, he observes that many of the excessively rich students like the notoriety of intelligence more than actually having to be intelligent.
It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.
It becomes an act of superiority to state you’ve read a book or have a stern opinion on a political topic, which, actually having a working knowledge of these and caring about them does give Marianne an easy “in” with this culture and luckily Rooney spares the reader an impression of C & M as authentic and the rest as Salinger “phoneys”. It’s implied, but handled well.

While Rooney occasionally dips into caricatures of college-types for minor characters, her primary characters are nuanced and complex in a way that, by the end of the book, you feel you shared your time with real people. Both Marianne and Connell are problematic at times--especially Connell and his sexual hangups or his impressions of Marianne as “damaged”--but Rooney invests emotional insights into them that grants them a real sense of authenticity. Unlike the first person narration of Conversations, Normal People is told from a very unaffected third-person omniscient perspective that refrains from making judgements on the characters. You see their faults and their inner-justifications or griefs but the reader is left on their own to decide what to make of them. There are times when either character will disgust or frustrate you, and others when you really feel for them. Like life, nothing caught in a social web is simple. As the novel progresses, so does the insight into their emotional well-being, which reaches a climax of sorts when Connell is having suicidal thoughts and Marianne feels insignificant in the world. Luckily, Rooney handles these topics with grace that captures the feelings of depression without glorifying them or using them merely as a plot device. Similarly is Marianne’s homelife, with a now-dead abusive father, an all-but-absent mother and a weak yet abusive older brother who takes out his anger on her. The way these elements shape a person is done quite well--aside from some of Rooney’s presentation of sexual dominance to be discussed shortly--and the impact that people have on each other’s growth and identity is shown as both a sadness and a joy throughout the novel.

That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.

It is easy to get invested in the non-relationship of Marianne and Connell, which really pulls the novel forward through authentic raw emotion, but what really makes the novel work is the ways their relationship, and sex, becomes an avenue to examine power dynamics. What is particularly interesting about Marianne and Connell are their particular social classes and how these shape the way they interact with their world.
He and Marianne never talked about money. They had never talked, for example, about the fact that her mother paid his mother money to scrub their floors and hang their laundry, or about the fact that this money circulated indirectly to Connell, who spent it, as often as not, on Marianne.

While the two rarely discuss money, the influences of late capitalism are very much a part of their identities. Marianne stays on in Dublin and never has to work whereas Connell spends his weekends back home working in a garage and he is looked down upon at Trinity by his peers due to his working class status. It even causes a “breakup” between him and Marianne after their first year when his pride in not asking her to stay at her place since he cannot afford rent is seen by her as him wanting to go home to see other people and disguising it as not having the money to stay in Dublin for the summer. To her the idea of simply not being able to pay rent seems like an aberration from reality. When they are both awarded a scholarship, Connell is irked that for him it is a necessity to fund school but for Marianne it is just a status symbol (and her being awarded the money means a student who actually needed it was denied the money). It is then pointed out to Connell that he is accepting being served dinner at the award ceremony by his own working class peers, essentially throwing guilt back at him as a working-class traitor. This is a typical knee-jerk reaction of a dominant class, repositioning guilt to create in-fighting within the subordinate classes as the dominant class continues on unimpeded.

Guilt manifests itself in many ways throughout the novel. Self-doubt and shame enter into many of the characters in the later portion of the novel and there is even a suicide of a character Connell remembers most as someone who built their personality out of trying to be accepted by others. The social posturing and societal guilt that drives it becomes toxic at a point. Most pronounced is Marianne’s self-guilt and the ways her history of trauma still keeps her in it’s grasp:
Denise decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression towards Marianne as a way of expressing themselves. As a child, Marianne resisted, but now she simply detaches, as if it isn't of any interest to her, which in a way it isn't. Denise considers this a symptom of her daughter's frigid and unlovable personality. She believes Marianne lacks 'warmth', by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.

Central to the novel are the sexual growth and identities of Marianne, which Rooney has pegged as a deviant, and Connell who is motivated by privacy, shame and supposed normalcy. Connell views sex as a very private act--he is very flustered when Peggy suggests a threesome with Marianne and Connell--and forces his and Marianne’s relationship to be secret in fear of other’s thinking him abnormal for being with her. He is bothered by her desires for submission and thinks of himself as better than being able to go along with them. As sex is often a metaphor for capitalism in the book, Connell is attempting to be “ethical”, but it is also an issue that he consistently views her prior history and sexuality as constituting abnormality and being “damaged” (as he often puts it). There is a sense of the classic Catholic guilt at play and his revulsion towards her wishes to be hit puts a wedge between them.

Is the world such an evil place, that love should be indistinguishable from the basest and most abusive forms of violence?

Marianne, as mentioned earlier, tends towards a more devil-may-care attitude towards sex and has a preference for being abused. A major criticism of the book are the ways that submissive preference and being damaged are overly entangled. Using sex as a critique of capitalism, the submissive behavior and those who eagerly dominate over her is an insightful examination of power dynamics, but I do concede the argument that it minimizes the possibility of an aggressive sexual relationship founded on love and mutual understanding instead of only being an avenue for abuse and actual sadists like all the examples in the novel. Moving on. Under capitalism, the female body is inevitably commodified and her dominators tend to see her more as an object to control rather than an equal partner. Her boyfriends are all abusers of power: the first is hosting a fascist to speak on campus, the second is the son of a banker central to causing the economic collapse in Ireland (he also tells stories about his friends working in the US banking industry as if the housing bubble collapse is funny anecdote), and the third is an artist who enjoys photographing torture. It is best stated when the Swedish artist coerces Marianne into being tied up more, ignoring her pleas to stop by telling her he knows she’ll do it because she loves him and he loves her. She wonders ‘Could he really do the gruesome things he does to her and believe at the same time he’s acting out of love?

The need to possess her and abuse her is mirrored in the social class aspects of the novel. While the likely-sociopathic Jamie does not physically abuse her outside of bed, his emotional abuse is far worse--much like the way the wealthy class gaslights the lower classes into remaining submissive. Unfortunately, Rooney’s answer to the sexual questions raised by the book are a bit of a let-down compromise that gives masculinity unnecessary applause. At two pivotal moments in the book, Connell stands up to an abuser--one in high school when she is groped and the other at the end when her nose has been broken--by swooping in through a display of being more masculine than the abuser. It feels overly traditional, much like the sexual roles, in a novel that would be better served by pushing limits. The sexual compromise of the two at the end, with Marianne basically submitting to his love and masculinity, feels like a cop-out for an ending that is already far too tidy than it need be.

Despite this, the novel registers as a success overall. Rooney leaves the novel on a note of uncertainty, a similar tone that fueled the infectious nature of the novel, which makes up for the overly tidy emotional climax and resolution. It seems inevitable that there will be a miniseries of this with Ed Sheeran's Castles on the Hill blasting over a montage of Connell and Marianne--this idea almost makes me want to drop a star, though I won't--and while this work is imperfect it achieves what it sets out to do and I very much enjoyed reading it. I couldn't put it down to be honest. These characters are easy to care for, the story is engrossing and the undercurrents of themes and social criticisms are well executed. This novel is a serious dose of early romance nostalgia that doesn’t sugar coat anything. The imperfections and complexities of love and identity are what makes this novel function at its best and I will be eagerly awaiting her next book.


Her eyes fill up with tears again and she closes them. Even in memory she will find this moment unbearably intense, and she's aware of this now, while it's happening. She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.
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