Novels about relationships can be fraught with overly emotional language and unrealistically high stakes. “Normal People,” Irish author Sally Rooney’s second novel, centers around the relationship between protagonists Marianne and Connell, a complicated dynamic that inspires both admiration and pity. She writes about romance and lust in a manner that is nothing short of painful.
Some romances seem happy at the start and only doomed with the emergence of life’s obstacles. Rooney’s ideas of romance are different. Marianne and Connell’s relationship is the site of tension from the start. Marianne comes from a wealthy and abusive family. Connell comes from a working-class family. His mother works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house. He is popular in high school. She has no friends. Connell is crippled by social anxiety, which motivates him to place too much weight on his reputation. Marianne doesn’t care what people think of her. Maybe she even likes people to hate her, likes the painful feelings caused by self-induced isolation.
But they’re also drawn to each other. When they start sleeping together, Connell doesn’t want anyone in school to find out, and Marianne is okay with that. Marianne has a penchant for self-destruction and tends to assume a submissive role in relationships because of it. Connell crumbles with the power this grants him. “She would have lain on the ground and let him walk over her body if he wanted, he knew that.” After Connell doesn’t ask Marianne to the Debs, a school dance, their relationship ends. They both move on to go to Trinity College in Dublin, where they once more become entangled with each other in complicated ways.
It all seems clichéd. These are stories and myths we’ve heard before, too many times. And often, it is. The language sometimes seems rushed, as if Rooney could not be bogged down by metaphor in the process of getting this story on the page. And some of the details seem too perfect, too ingrained in cultural myths about romance, to assist Rooney in her task of creating a fictional world that is equally alive as ours.
But as in her first novel, “Conversations with Friends,” these trite stories are being remade, rejuvenated by authenticity and a knack for the psychological portrait. In doing so, Rooney challenges our notions of reading as an empathetic act. It’s not that picking up “Normal People” is satisfying because we are granted access to the world through Connell’s or Marianne’s eyes for a few hours. It’s far more narcissistic than that. Rooney creates dynamics between characters so vivid that it is impossible not to identify yourself within them. Reading Rooney is like looking into a mirror.
This creates layers of projection. The reader projects themselves onto the characters. The characters are projecting their insecurities onto each other, and their relationship becomes “like looking into a mirror, seeing something that has no secrets from you.” The more intimate they become with one another, the harder it is for them to communicate. They are projecting what they think the other would say, which is really only a manifestation of their own insecurities. Sometimes it works through frustrating but harmless linguistic mishaps. In one scene, Marianne thinks Connell went outside to pursue another girl when in reality, he had asked if Marianne would go to the smoking area with him. She heard, “I’m going out to the smoking area,” and he said (or meant to say), “Do you want to come out to the smoking area?” This, they can communicate through. Other times, it leads to months of silent hostility between the two of them. It’s heart-wrenching to watch as their assumptions based on personal insecurity become the grounds of their own subjective realities.
Both of these protagonists are extremely intelligent and interested in conversing about topics like the problems with capitalism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Irish politics. Marianne, particularly, feels comfortable expressing opinions that put others on edge. One night, Marianne is talking to Connell and her friend Peggy when she comments, “Generally, I find men are a lot more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than exercising personal political freedom for themselves.” The intellectual tone of their relationship works in tandem with their physical relationship, creating a deep sense of intimacy. “At times, he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronization that it surprises them both.” It creates an intensity that hinges on destructive. Connell and Marianne are bouncing between two mirrored walls, a space where the moments that make them happiest are also plagued with a toxic intensity and the remnants of a past that make those same moments tragic.
Social class also, inevitably, sits at the novel’s center. Connell comes from a working-class family in West Ireland, and expresses discomfort in the metropolitan environment of Dublin, where “classmates have identical accents and carry the same size MacBook under their arms.” He critiques his classmates’ sense of entitlement, where “they were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read.” Connell, on the other hand, is deeply uncomfortable taking up space he has not proven himself to deserve.
A Vox review offered the critique that these characters are made dynamic at the expense of flat minor characters who are often introduced as other love interests. One such character is Helen, Connell’s girlfriend for a period in college with whom he had “a normal, good relationship.” And while it is true she is almost stereotypically the opposite of Marianne, Connell loves her. Her individual characteristics are second to the dynamic between her and Connell. This criticism of the novel, I think, fundamentally fails to grasp the thematic complexity of Rooney’s work. This is a novel that challenges the basic ideas of the individual. It posits that perhaps our only option is to suffer in loving each other, even when it hurts more than being alone.
It is worth noting that this isn’t a story about Marianne’s emotional transformation from a self-destructive girl into a woman who learns to love herself enough to believe she is deserving of healthy love. Rooney is not interested in the business of the romance novel where knots are tied and untied neatly. Marianne craves powerlessness that Connell can’t grant her. And Connell carries the weight of his mistakes and Marianne’s refusal to stop loving him; he almost faults her for it. But between them, something essential also exists. Marianne thinks, “Most people go their whole lives without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”
Jodie Kahan can be reached at email@example.com.