Normal People
December 30, 2019 11:07 AM - by Sally Rooney - Subscribe

Connell and Marianne grew up in the same small town, but the similarities end there. At school, Connell is popular and well liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation—awkward but electrifying—something life changing begins.

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.

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posted by the man of twists and turns (7 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I really liked Rooney’s first book, Conversations with Friends, especially the subtlety of it, which I thought was missing here. I was enjoying this one through the early college years, but then it went awry for me in the second half. But I have a particularly hard time reading about young women going through abuse, self-harm/hatred, and severe emotional pain, so maybe I’m just not the right reader for this work. (On the topic of recent books with women protagonists going through college and dealing with confusing men, I much prefer Elif Batuman’s The Idiot.)
posted by sallybrown at 8:20 AM on December 31, 2019 [5 favorites]

Actually, the feel of punishing bleakness I got from this book reminded me a bit of A Little Life. I’m not sure why it feels gratuitous to me in both books, because I know how cruel life can be—but both books seemed to hit me over the head with emotion pain to such an extent that it pulled me out of the story.
posted by sallybrown at 8:26 AM on December 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

but then it went awry for me in the second half

Agreed. Did you also find that there was lopsidedness, like we get a lot of Connell's internal life, and much less of Marianne's? I think I need to do a re-read already because I feel like I missed something--her arc shrinks down to figuring out how to integrate her sexual preferences into a healthy life, while his opens out to the world? I...don't quite know what to do with that in the relative absence of her interior life in the second half, but I am leaning toward yuck/is this a joke/was all of that the driest satire masquerading as a sincere story about codependent intimacy? Or did the book fall apart halfway through?
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:54 AM on January 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

I thought that was tied to her mental health. I read it months ago so I may be misremembering, but it felt she like had shut down so much of herself, even to herself. Some combination of depression / eating disorder / abuse / self-hatred.
posted by sallybrown at 8:27 AM on January 4, 2020

I certainly didn't not like it, but I think I wanted to like it more than I actually did (see: "the kind of person who has read Sally Rooney, aspirations to"). The prose and dialogue are almost disarmingly perfect and enjoyable to read, and it struck me as being, by whatever objective standards exist for literature, a good book, but, eh. Marianne and Connell's relationship felt much more vibrant and three dimensional than either of them individually as people. Which, maybe that's the point, but there's only so many iterations I can take of "chapter where they are not together but they can't resist their connection" and "chapter where they are together but then there is a painful misunderstanding."

Still planning on reading Conversations with Friends, though. (Would also read a book about Connell's mom.)
posted by eponym at 12:49 PM on January 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I re-read it and yes, she has shut down her interior life, but so has Connell, and we have a long and sloggy chapter about his trip to student health services with a literal inventory of how he's feeling, so I think I still stand by the asymmetry of their college years. Something I did catch--well, at least I think I did--was the possibility that Marianne has an abortion. We hear that she went home for a few days, followed by her tears (!) at the ending of "Umbrellas of Cherbourg," followed by cramping, Connell's idle thought that if she were pregnant, she'd take care of it herself, much later followed by her comment that she hopes another character has not been protesting against abortion. Circumstantial, but one more lacuna in her story. I think the book is a stab at how/by what process a "normal" sort of guy learns to live with his tendencies toward obsession/emotional domination...but gives short shrift to the woman involved. He had chosen to redeem her, she was redeemed, the end. No introspection from her about the violence underlying her feeling of being broken and unworthy, or how she might come to terms with the unspeakable wounds--just more submission, more waiting for his return, more empty work for an absent boss (whose presence is only for the purpose of commenting of his own awesomeness). ‘It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which has been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.’ That's the epigraph, taken from Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Frankly, his conversation is not all that, and he's often silent, leading to misunderstandings, or making various coughing/sighing/exasperated noises. Her conversation may be brilliant--we are told--but then this becomes his book, and she's his sexual and creative muse keeping the flame for him while he wanders the world, and that's the fairy tale for the 21st century? I think I might be leaning harder toward "Yuck."
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:36 PM on January 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

And finally, on lively discussion of the subject of Marianne's absence: even if we are to pay forensic attention to her silences, then we are left with the book that wasn't written. (It makes me think of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, but at least Lenu was up front and clear about telling her side of the story, and relentless in conjuring Lila in a way that the narrator of Normal People is...not. Now I am a person who has read Sally Rooney and is also no fun.)

Thanks to the man of twists and turns for the prompt to read this. Looking forward to talking about Conversations with Friends.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:37 AM on January 6, 2020

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