Book review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

While current events might suggest otherwise, most people are inclined to a romantic optimism when it comes to love and belonging, preferring to err on the side of eternal hope rather perpetually-smouldering pessimism.

Part of this buoyant outlook on life, one that is enshrined in innumerable fairytales and thus Disney animated feature films, is the idea that we are not only destined to meet The One but that it is all but inevitable that we will be irrevocably drawn together, life obstacles be damned.

But what if, ventures Sally Rooney’s exquisitely well-written Normal People, the attraction is there but the ability to execute on it in a way that is lasting and fulfilling evades you?

For Connell and Marianne, who inhabit different sides of the social divide in the town of Carricklea, Ireland, it is far from an academic idea, with both of them deeply-attracted to each other but caught in a push-pull-on-and-off loop that draws them close before spinning them into adjoining but not quite touching social orbits.

“You make me really happy, he says. His hand moves over her hair and he adds: I love you. I’m not just saying that, I really do. 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 fist moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.” (P. 44)

Far from devolving into some sort of Days of Our Lives, rom-com melodrama, Rooney’s beautifully-executed rumination on how love can be present but never quite find its footing, articulates with elegance, insight and a just-so balance of surging emotion and internal restraint what it must feel like to find the love of your life but never quite feel like they are yours.

Alas, geography can’t be blamed for the inability of Connell and Marianne to make good on their shared attraction.

Growing up in the same town where Marianne’s mother is one of the wealthy elite while Lorraine, Connell’s mother, is her cleaner, and then moving onto to Trinity College in Dublin to study after high school and all its messy, cruel, ups-and-downs, they have many opportunities to draw close, not just emotionally but physically.

And while this happens on more than one occasion, each of them struggles to move beyond their insecurities and emotional scars to put sufficient trust in what they are creating together to make it take any kind of supportive permanence.

They do try, and for a time, here and again, it looks as if they might make it work; but every time, something intervenes, one person pulls back and the other, not willing to be emotionally exposed, follows and they retreat back to diffident friendship and ill-expressed longing.

Sally Rooney (Image courtesy Faber & Faber)

What makes Normal People feel so palpably real, is the way Rooney perfectly encapsulates that frustrating dynamic we have all observed in our selves at one time or another, whereby we want to reach wholeheartedly for something but can’t quite summon up the courage.

A little voice inside tells us it will be every bit as wonderful as we imagine, and yet faced with an array of personal demons, all of which form a demented Greek chorus of the avowedly-negative, we recoil and what might have been all-too-easily becomes what never was.

For Connell and Marianne, it’s not quite that straightforward with every step backward not a final one and inevitably followed by some kind of tentative step forward, which never quite becomes definitive.

It’s an agonising dance that both realise is encumbered by their own issues but afraid to take a leap and go for broke, again in that all too human we are all party to at some point or another, they stay at arm’s length, close friends who will always be there for each other but unable to overcome the voices in their heads that preach enervating caution and life-curtailing uncertainty.

“She draws away, just like that. he can hear himself breathing in the silence, the pathetic heaving of his breath. He waits until it slows down again, not wanting to have his voice break when he tries to speak. I’m really sorry, he says. She squeezes his hand. It’s a very sad gesture. He can’t believe the stupidity of what he’s just done. Sorry, he says again. But Marianne has already turned away.” (P. 184)

What is interesting is that it is Marianne, whose privileged background is surfeit with oft-debilitating physical and emotional abuse, who emerges the stronger from their interactions while Connell, ostensibly from a loving home and intelligent, caring and decent, is the one who is unable to ultimately create the safe haven with Marianne that he knows lies within his grasp.

His is a beautifully-enunciated struggle between an innate emotionality and a stunted expression of that richly internal, thoughtful life that, allied with some dark abusive moments at the hands of people surrounding Marianne, paint a picture of modern masculinity that is revealing and insightful, and which together with Marianne’s determination to make a life for herself that transcends its broken, constituent parts, paint a picture of the modern dilemma of relationship-building in a world where endless options almost mitigate against embracing satisfying permanence.

At its heart then, Normal People, which is full of lustrously-rich, extravagant yet impressively-measured language that gives us a revealingly-intimate picture of love caught in a limbo from which there might be no escape, is an illuminating, emotionally-intelligent study of the way we often long for so much and yet settle for so little, despite what we know to be true of the alluring romantic, and life possibilities lingering tantalisingly before us.

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