Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney
*Content warnings* Physical/emotional/sexual abuse, eating disorders, mental illness, domestic violence
Genre: Coming-of-age fiction
Connell and Marianne’s friendship in school is fraught with complications - they are from vastly different backgrounds, with Connell’s Mum working as a housekeeper for Marianne’s family. Marianne’s status as a misanthropic social outcast also threatens to undermine Connell’s popularity.
Nevertheless, an enduring connection develops between them that lasts through the trials of school and into university. As the two both help and hinder each other to make sense of themselves, their relationship creates a devastating collage of what it means to be human.
After reading Normal People, I hesitated about writing a review. With such a powerful story that does not shy away from examining so many difficult issues within its 250-odd pages, what could I add? Anything I had to say seemed clumsy in comparison.
However, I decided that if I didn’t review it and opted for a lighter, “easier” book, I would be going against one of Sally Rooney’s resounding messages about openness and communication. So here goes.
In my experience with highly character-centric books, such a sharp focus on the individual personalities can act to exclude the storyline that surrounds them. Yet the plot of Normal People did not feel flimsy at all. I found it an engaging story that left me wanting to find out how the characters were going to behave or change.
Without a doubt, this novel can be a challenging read (in an intense thought-provoking way, not a too-many-long-words way). It deals with difficult topics in a way that manages to be both hard-hitting and sensitive. I often found myself putting my book down and just staring out of the bus window for a few minutes needing to pause for thought.
I particularly liked the way that Sally Rooney does not over-simplify issues such as mental illness and unhealthy relationships by presenting a clean resolution. Instead, she explores their complexity without commentary, allowing her intricate characters to speak for themselves.
I really did become invested in the stories of Connell and Marianne - the best indicator of truly vivid characters is when you start wanting to talk to them through the pages! It can be frustrating at times to see them so insular and reluctant to express or act on their feelings. Having said that, this is part of what makes them so painfully recognisable.
‘Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it.
She had that feeling in school often, but it wasn’t accompanied by any specific images of what the real life might look like. All she knew was when it started, she wouldn’t have to imagine it anymore.’
Read If: You would like to try a character-centric drama of human strength and vulnerability.
Made Me Think: I liked how Normal People questioned the value we place on social currency, as ‘popularity’ has little impact on how the characters view themselves. However, Sally seems to make her message more complex than the familiar ‘believe in yourself and others will believe in you’ cliché.
I thought the characters of Marianne and Connell reflected a different idea - that loving yourself can be very hard, and that, even in our own lowest moments, we are deserving of the love of others.
What Bristol Girls Thought: I asked the Bristol Girl Book Group for their thoughts on Normal People:
“Normal People was an interesting analysis of growth, growing and the sense of who we are. I loved the thought and reminder that the people we meet in life, even if they make us feel sad at times, help us to grow into the people we need to be.”
“The book reminded me of university where all the small issues were the end of the world. I wanted the characters to grow but felt they stayed small and self-focused.”
“The message that I got from this book was that sometimes relationships just aren’t meant to work out. And that’s okay.”
“I would recommend this book to people who enjoy immersive real-life novels.”
“I loved this book. It’s such a simple story which we all can relate to, but that’s the art of why it is so well written and powerful. Would definitely recommend.”
~ Jessica Rees
Written by Florence Edwards.