- What: Normal People
- Who: Sally Rooney
- Pages: 273, hard cover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2018
- The lit: of 5 flames
Quite a few friends have sent me books during COVID-19’s social distancing mandate. For that, I’m eternally grateful. Normal People was one of those books. (Layne Coffman, you’re a gem.)
You can’t really escape this book in 2020. It’s everywhere, including on Hulu. And in the past six months, a few friends have recommended this book to me, especially now that there’s a miniseries of it. So after receiving the book in the mail, I decided to hop on the bandwagon.
I may have fallen off though. It’s true that I couldn’t put down this book while I read it; it had an intoxicating grip on me. However, this wasn’t enough to eclipse the confusion and aloofness I felt (nor my frustration at an immense grammatical transgression). I also think part of the reason I wanted to keep going was to obtain some kind of clarity. Sadly, that never happened. In that way, maybe I was just another lost character wanting some normalcy and happiness.
Marianne and Connell have known each other for most of their lives, but they never speak in public. He’s a popular and intelligent student, and she’s a rich oddball who always speaks her mind — something her teenage peers despise and don’t understand. Connell sees Marianne every day after school when he picks up his mother, who cleans Marianne’s house. After years of brief conversations, their routine evolves into an affair, one that they both agree to keep secret so as to not disturb Connell’s social standing.
After a while, the secrecy becomes too painful, and they go their separate ways — until reuniting at Trinity College in Dublin. They come in and out of each other’s lives while at university; sometimes that involves sex, and sometimes they’re just friends. The spark is always there, though, and they struggle to be themselves around anyone but each other. This leads to their anxieties, past trauma, and inner demons finally erupting and forcing them to recognize and act on their true feelings and desires.
The first thing I will give this book is that sheds some serious light on mental health and how these types of issues can look different on different people. Connell suffers from anxiety and a longing to be liked. When he moves to Dublin and struggles to make friends after obtaining small-town popularity, this desire of his takes a toll. And when the life he used to know in his hometown changes, he finds he cannot cope. Marianne, on the other hand, has never really needed anyone and is perfectly fine with being different — on the surface anyways. Past abuse, though, makes her feel unworthy and turn to masochistic and unhealthy behavior.
The message behind Normal People is clear: Everyone has shit in their lives and a yearning to have a different life, to be liked, to be normal. Nobody is free from those nagging desires nor from the somewhat contradictory need to be a free person. In the end, doesn’t that make us the same and somehow ordinary?
This message is pretty evident to me, but author Sally Rooney incorporates some abstraction that muddies the waters to get to that conclusion. The characters themselves and their relationships with one another don’t have clearly identifiable qualities. Their actions and thoughts don’t provide that crisp characterization that I love in a novel.
“It feels powerful to him to put an experience down in words, like he’s trapping it in a jar and it can never fully leave him.” — Normal People
I gripe about this flaw frequently in reviews, and every time it happens in a book, I drive myself crazy trying to figure out who these people really are. If the author’s intent is to provide complexity, it’s not something I support. Complexity for the sake of complexity isn’t bold or skillful; it’s a bothersome distraction from the narrative.
This can occur from an author trying to be too profound or too poetic, but it just causes me to lose sight of the characters with whom I so desperately try to connect. Toward the end of Normal People, for example, Marianne mentions how Connell has undoubtedly helped her and vice versa. How that happened was completely lost on me. If it was supposed to be obvious, it was not, which frustrated me.
Another thing that wasn’t obvious? Rooney’s reasoning for that major grammatical gaffe I mention above. In Normal People, that’s a lack of quotations. Seriously, there’s not one in the whole book. This too seems to have some kind of complex, poetic significance. Although I still find it annoying, I did start to interpret some meaning from it as I wrote this review (though there’s a high probability of my interpretation being false).
Something about the lack of quotations seems existential to me as if it’s too much effort to put two lines in front of and behind a word. There’s too much anxiety and disorder to care. Bigger fish to fry if you will. Mix this with the intentionally dismal plot and unintentional lack of characterization, and this book seriously affected my mood. Is this just a Beth-ism though?
I remember reading an existential book in high school — one that’s critically acclaimed for its existentialism and of which I’ve purposely forgotten the title — and completely hating it even though my classmates praised it. I can’t help but feel the same thing happened with Normal People. At one point while reading it, I had to ask myself if I was even capable of liking the existential. Maybe it gives me angst about my own life, and maybe I try to avoid these thoughts and feelings.
“Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.” — Normal People
I compare this book to something hideously ugly and that causes you pain when you look at it, but you can’t stop staring. Like terrible celebrity drama that pulls you in every time or a car accident that’s gruesome and scary. You will always look. Well, I kept going back to this novel even though it didn’t give me joy. If anything, it left me utterly depressed the entire weekend I read it. Some may argue that the mark of a good book is that it totally controls and consumes you. I have certainly made that point before.
There are so many possibilities for why it dominated me, though, and not all of them equate to Normal People being a “good” book. Maybe there’s a practical explanation: It was simply short and easy to read, and maybe I just wanted to finish the darn thing. I also know I really wanted some clarity and better understanding of the characters. Further, there was some ugliness that engulfed me, which I couldn’t ignore.
Whatever it was, I can’t deny the fact that I had to keep reading Normal People or that it took over my emotions for 48 hours. There’s something there; I know it. But I also can’t deny that the more I wrote this blog, the more negativity spewed from my fingers. I’ve heard a spectrum of responses from people who read this book. Some have LOVED it (critics certainly do); others were very much “meh” about it; and one friend completely hated it. Me? As you can probably tell, my feelings are just a mess … just a mess.