Discussing Normal People

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Published earlier this year, Normal People is Sally Rooney’s much-anticipated and now much-acclaimed second novel, following last year’s Conversations with Friends. Normal People is much like its predecessor in spirit – it follows the lives and complicated relationships of two classmates and sometimes lovers – but it does so with greater depth and insight, entering, in this case, into the minds of both characters, consequently making it an even more anguishing read. The novel deals with mental health, class relations, sexuality, and untimely love, and by doing so, it adds much-craved substance to dynamics we might otherwise see as trite.

At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school football team, while she is lonely, proud and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her 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 at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And 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.

(Official summary of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, via Penguin Random House.)

As we here at the Attic love our contemporary fiction, especially when it gives us emotional insight into the world, it is no surprise that Normal People has been a popular read this autumn. Both Olivia and Lauren have read it recently and Raquel and Eliza have it sitting in their to be read piles. Today, Olivia and Lauren discuss the novel.

Olivia: Where do we begin?? What was your favorite thing about the novel? Your favorite part?

Lauren: I read this book in one afternoon. I absolutely could not put it down. There are a few people in my past that this novel brought up after years of not thinking about them — a middle school crush, a study abroad fling — and I’m sure that is exactly what Rooney wanted to happen to her readers. Thank god I didn’t read this book in college, otherwise I’d be going on a long, unnecessary thought journey about the what-ifs I’ve (happily) left behind.

There’s really no other way to put it: this novel is so relatable I had to take breaks to catch my breath. I could feel myself in both Marianne and Connell’s shoes, anticipating the major changes that come with reaching adulthood and yet still not knowing quite how to handle those changes. Rooney absolutely nailed the way we sometimes hang on to what is comfortable as we inch closer toward our futures, even if what we’re hanging onto doesn’t always fit into our new lives.

Olivia: Definitely!! She has incredible skill with bringing all of that to life and making us feel for her characters by feeling for ourselves. How did you feel about the way she conveys that through the novel? Notably through its alternating perspectives and time jumps?

I personally felt it was masterfully constructed, and I loved having both Marianne and Connell’s points of view throughout the whole novel (except for the ending!!!) as it made everything wonderfully realistic and fresh. Both of the characters were so well crafted that it made seeing both sides of them so easy — both as the emotionally raw characters that were easy to connect to, and as the detestable ones you just kind of wanted sit down and give a talking to. I’ll admit that I still hate Connell so much, despite all of his good sides, for being so obnoxious at the beginning.

The time jumps, I feel far more conflicted about. I get why they’re there. They make sense structurally and narratively, but I feel like they’re something that will work far better for narratorial analysis in the context of an essay than in reality. They made sense, but they were extremely disjointing. It made it feel more like I was reading a series of short stories than a novel. Which is fine? I love short stories. But I don’t read short story collections in one go. I read one short story and then I put it aside for a bit. And I felt the need to do that with Normal People, even though I found myself wishing I could keep reading. I like my novels to flow so that I want to keep reading until I’ve finished the entire thing. And I didn’t really experience that with Normal People. I do know I’m probably in the minority there though, because as you’ve said, you read the novel in one afternoon, and I’ve seen so many other comments about people doing the same.

Lauren: I did read it in one setting, but I still agree with you that it felt like a collection of short stories. I felt like I was in Connell and Marianne’s brains, looking back on a collection of memories rather than watching a film of their experience from beginning to end.

Olivia: That’s a good way to put it!!

Lauren: But Olivia! How can you hate Connell! He actually made me feel a bit (just a bit!) of sympathy for emotionally detached boys I’ve known in the past. Rooney did a tremendous job of articulating the ‘lad culture’ here in Ireland and how it negatively affects young men in their personal relationships. So much of what you probably found annoying about Connell is really quite accurate in regards to a young Irish man (at least in my experience). Maybe I haven’t been completely destroyed by my own interactions with ‘lads’ (as I previously thought I had been) because I was able to feel some sympathy for Connell despite the way he treated Marianne, especially at the beginning.

Olivia: I don’t know!! I don’t have any experience with Irish culture and that does put it into more perspective, but boys in my French school were very similar in their behavior at that age, and I guess I related to Marianne and her high school years a lot… except I was much more overtly sensitive. So I guess I just have very low tolerance when it comes to the behavior of teenage boys? I definitely appreciated the insight into Connell’s mind and the reasons for his behavior, but it still makes me so angry!!

Olivia: How did you feel about the ending? I hate the ending. I think it’s extremely realistic and wonderful that it embodies what is a serious and extremely common reality for academics and young people these days – the two body problem in academia especially is a huge, huge thing, with it being near impossible for partners to find jobs or positions in the same cities or regions, let alone at the same universities. So I know and know of so many people living in different countries or on different continents than their partners so that they can both pursue their careers – sometimes with no end date to their spatial separation in sight. And they’re happy. They’re together.

So logically, I think it’s great that Normal People recognises that modern reality and ends with Marianne encouraging Connell to move to New York for his MFA, without ending their relationship. But emotionally, I hate it. Especially because of how much the disjointedness of the novel drove me up the wall. The ending is abrupt, and somehow it’s both extremely appropriate, stylistically and thematically, and extremely frustrating at the same time. Which I feel sums up my feelings on the book as a whole. I think it’s very well constructed and beautifully told and a very needed piece of literature to reflect very realistic situations, so I very much admire and appreciate Normal People, but when it comes to the emotional side of the novel, the part of it that I want to judge not with my mind but with my gut, I felt upset by the whole thing.

Lauren: I thought the ending was a bit predictable given the whole of the novel, but at the same time I just wanted them to be together, finally, once and for all, no loose ends. Looking back now I don’t think they were ever really destined to end up together in that way, and maybe that’s part of the effect of the book as a whole: attempting to create a world in which two people who seem meant for each other, who continue to knock down each other’s walls no matter how many times they’re rebuilt, but yet in the end Connell and Marianne are only supposed to grow from their experiences with one another into full, separate people.

Olivia: That’s such a good way to look at it! Frustrating, but so good.

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