The first half of Normal People feels more like young adult fiction than literary fiction: themes of teen love, peer pressure, not fitting in. The prose is eloquent and the plot moves along nicely, yet one feels almost embarrassed to be reading about such adolescent affairs. Not until the second half of the novel does the complexity of the female protagonist reach a level at which one could regard Normal People as literature.
There is an almost mystical quality to the manner in which Sally Rooney explicates her characters’ psychological dimension. The writing is reminiscent of Jane Austen– though not quite as elaborate. Rooney’s dialogue sounds life-like (picture them speaking with an Irish accent); yet as a writer Rooney lacks humor. The prose and dialogue are, as NPR put it, “slyly ironic”; but there is no point in reading the novel where one is in danger of actually laughing. Sally Rooney is smart, but not especially witty.
Sally Rooney is smart, but not especially witty.
Normal People follows the lives of Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan, who are in an ambiguous romantic relationship, with gaps during which they date other people. As a character, Connell is a female idealization of a male rather than a realistic portrayal of one. He did not enjoy his first experiences with sex; he has an odd habit of puking when he gets nervous. He’s quiet, sensitive, brooding, Jane Austen-reading; these tired tropes–the strong, silent type. Though in high school he worries that his association with Marianne will be bad for his rep, ultimately he is her sycophant, constantly deferring to her:
“You’re great at everything you do”, he tells her (106).
To be constantly reaffirmed by her boyfriend makes Marianne smile.
When Connell speaks, instead we hear Rooney’s voice, not that of a male adolescent. This is not to say that every male should be boorish, guzzling beer, and catcalling women. But when Connell points out the double standards of male and female behavior, this is a distinctly White, liberal female grievance, or at least would more plausibly derive from that quarter.
There is Connell’s irritating and somehow effeminate manner of referring to his mother by her first name, Lorraine. As the child of a single mother, Connell lacks independence, assertiveness, and rugged individualism. Instead, he is adrift, guided only by his vague and ridiculous politics, and his insecure doting on Marianne.
Marianne persuades him to make a singularly bad decision: to become an English major. Still worse, she encourages him to continue his studies with an MFA in New York, as though this were a smooth path to literary success. What dim employment prospects Connell will face due to Marianne’s advice we can only imagine.
When Connell ventures an opinion, he says merely what a millennial liberal white woman would want him to say. He bemoans his own “male privilege” and expresses a willingness to live under a matriarchy: “I’d give it a go, see what it’s like” (99). Connell is off to the side, adoring Marianne, wondering what her needs might be at any given moment. If she doesn’t feel like sex, he’ll find another way to pleasure her. It’s cringeworthy, embarrassing, delusional. At times it feels that Normal People could be categorized as women’s fiction more properly given that it is written specifically to appeal to female sensibilities.
It is more like a conceit of the author that her characters are very special and very gifted.
Connell is reputed to be smart. Marianne tells her friends he’s the smartest person “they would ever meet” (103). Yet he never says anything particularly insightful, so it’s not clear why he has this reputation. It is more like a conceit of the author that her characters are very special and very gifted. Connell is humble; whereas Marianne wavers between a sense of importance and self-hatred–which is at least interesting. Marianne does not seem brilliant either except insofar as she is directly characterized as such. Again, her specialness and brilliance are not necessarily self-evident.
Sporting a ridiculous beret, Marianne’s nonconformism reads more like self-indulgence. For example, she chides her friend for working an office job: “It’s time you’ll never get back, Marianne adds. I mean the time is real” (112). Marianne considers herself to have a “superior intellect” (143). It isn’t until we learn about her “violent impulses” (145), both towards herself and others, that her character becomes more complex. Her high self-regard is a cover for the low opinion that she really has about herself, rooted in childhood trauma and ongoing abuse.
Connell and Marriane’s respective social status vacillates throughout the novel; showing that what makes one popular in high school doesn’t necessarily translate to college. Marianne is higher status in terms of social class; after all, Connell’s mother is the housekeeper for Marianne’s family. This is perhaps an uncomfortable fact for both the liberal, guilt-ridden Marianne as well as for Connell himself.
Connell is a communist sympathizer, knee-jerk leftist on all issues so far as to sympathize with his own mugger because, after all, how else could a drug addict get money? Marianne shares his naive political beliefs: “The whole idea of “meritocracy” or whatever, it’s evil” (180), she tells him, while lamenting her privileged status as a recipient of scholarship money. Rooney herself, as an avowed Marxist who decries the “patriarchy,” shares the leftism of her insufferable characters. In an interview, Rooney states that she does not have a didactic or political purpose for her fiction, and that is fair enough. Yet her political lens has a fairly heavy presence which detracts from her literary mission.
Despite all this, Normal People is a creditable novel. It is a page turner and an enjoyable read. It does have something interesting to say about the human condition, with adept literary styling, though the characters are irritating insofar as they are sanctimonious and self-important.
If it were meant to be a love story, it ends on a stubbornly unromantic note, with Marianne encouraging Connell to go to New York for grad school for a year, even though she knows, “What they have now they can never have back again” (273). This is another fallacy of the novel, that we can pursue work before love, and grad school before starting our lives; and before you know it, it’s too late. That’s likely the fate that Marianne would face if she were to persist in this attitude into her twenties and thirties.
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