REVIEW: An Acclaimed Novel Looks at Irish University Students Figuring Out Life

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 11.42.42 PM.png

Normal People

By Sally Rooney

Faber & Faber, 270 pages

 By Robert Allen Papinchak

Sally Rooney’s exemplary novel of the concatenation of an unlikely friendship, Normal People, follows quickly on the heels of her frisky romantic comedy, the delightful Conversations with Friends .  That debut novel garnered Rooney a great deal of praise including a Young Writer of the Year award from the Sunday Times.  It also made several best ten book lists.

Normal People comes with its own flurry of well-deserved accolades.  Along with winning the Costa Prize for Novel of the Year, it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  It won Waterstones Book of the Year and the An Post Irish Novel of the Year.  It has made over 14 Most Anticipated book lists of 2019.

Both books share common themes.  Each deals with unexpected relationships between characters from different classes.  Each contends with gender discrimination.  Each explores intimacy and integrity as power shifts between couples.

In Conversations with Friends, the convent school bond between Bobbi (half of their spoken word duo) and Frances (a lesbian communist) is tested when they meet a successful photojournalist, Melissa, at a poetry performance.  It becomes even more strained when they encounter her handsome trophy husband actor, Nick, and indulge in the life of the Dublin elite. The foursome endures alternating gender fluid affairs even as they sort through confusions about their intertwined life paths and egos. Each wants to be “someone worthy of praise, worthy of love.”

Some of these matters transfer into Normal People.  As Bobbi and Frances were opposites, so, too, do Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron represent obverse individuals.

The epigraph from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda defines the parameters of Normal People:  “It is one of the secrets 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.” 

As E. M. Forster’s imperative, “Only connect,” serves as the motto for Howards End, the Eliot quote underscores the value of personal involvements.  This time characters meet, separate, and meet again, like a point on a line touching the apex of a circle, creating a tangential collision.

Here the configuration depends on social distinctions.  Marianne and Connell attend the same school in the small town of Carricklea, Ireland.  But they are from different social strata.  Connell’s mother is a working class domestic for Marianne’s upper class mother. 

Marianne and Connell have contrasting personalities.  Connell is the popular center forward on the school’s soccer team; Marianne, the smartest person in the school, “has no friends and spends her lunch-times alone reading novels.” Despite their differences and though no one else knows about it, they sustain a secret sex life.  The “intensity of the privacy between them is very severe.”

They try to keep their worlds separate until Connell does the unthinkable.  He invites the most popular girl in school to the Debs dance.  This severs their connection.

Until they meet again as students in Trinity College in Dublin.  Their personalities have changed.  Marianne is now the outgoing one; Connell, the introvert.  Marianne’s promiscuous sex life is 15 shades of green.  She “suddenly has a cool boyfriend and Connell is the lonely, unpopular one.” Marianne’s indulgences feature sado-masochistic adventures in which she identifies as a submissive.

During their time at university, each gains a certain amount of freedom and independence when they win scholarships. The money makes them equals, giving them the “substance that makes the world real.”  They widen their horizons by traveling to Europe.  They edge towards becoming more like normal people as they begin to recognize the fitful conversion of love and friendship.  Connell develops a “normal, good relationship” with a classmate.  Marianne recognizes that “just as their relationship in school had been on his terms, their friendship now was on hers.”

There is a bittersweet, gut-wrenching ending to Normal People.  Marianne and Connell realize that you can take the boy and girl out of Carricklea but it’s not as easy to take Carricklea out of the boy and the girl.

Connell has to decide if he will accept an offer of a creative writing MFA place in New York.  Marianne knows that “[w]hat they have now they can never have back again . . . the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy.  He [Connell] brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her . . .They’ve done a lot of good for each other . . . People can really change one another.” She believes that “most people go through their whole lives without feeling that close with anyone.”

Normal People is a definitive novel of the transformative period of the years from late adolescence to early maturity.  Rooney adeptly examines the paradigm shifts that occur during the vacillating choices of popularity, the exigencies of class consciousness, and the vagaries of love.  It is not clear how open people ever are to change, but Rooney makes a compelling case that when they do change, it is likely because someone else has affected them.  

Robert Allen Papinchak, a former university English professor, has reviewed fiction for newspapers, magazines, journals and online including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, World Literature Today, the Washington Independent Review of Books, Mystery Scene Magazine, the Strand Magazine, Suspense Magazine, and others.  He has been the judge for the Nelson Algren Literary Prize for the short story and Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Creative Writing Contest.  His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received a Story award.  He is the author of Sherwood Anderson:  A Study of the Short Fiction.