Book review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

An achingly realistic portrayal of a relationship

Rooney’s brilliant Conversations with Friends was one of my favourite books of last year, and I’ve basically been holding out on reading Normal People as long as I could so I wouldn’t have to wait too long until the next book (I do this with my favourite authors). The imminent TV adaptation finally spurred me on. 

If you’ve somehow not managed to come across this book everywhere you look, it follows the relationship of a young couple in Ireland (Connell and Marianne) from their school days to early adulthood. A simple enough premise but Rooney’s a master of character relationships, which is what makes this book so addictive. 

This book is also unconventional structurally, with significant time jumps of weeks or months between each chapter and the point of view alternating between Connell and Marianne. The success of these narrative devices is that, where they could be jarring, you barely even notice them. You never feel like you miss an important detail in the time lapses, it just keeps the novel pacey, and the dual perspective gives you an intimate insight into each character’s inner monologue and motivations, which is probably the secret to why this novel has been so successful.

As with Conversation with Friends, the few people who aren’t as keen on Normal People seem to take an issue with the characters’ likability. I’ll grant these critics that at times the actions of Connell and Marianne can induce scream-at-the-novel levels of frustration. Rooney is definitely playing with this – letting the reader in on every misunderstanding and wrong decision that could be avoided if the characters could just take an objective view of their lives. But this is why Rooney’s characters are so believable, who in real life can take an objective view of their own life?

The other day I was mansplaining explaining to my girlfriend that that’s what I think this book is about: portraying an achingly realistic relationship, with people’s strange and sometimes counterintuitive motivations – like wanting to be popular in school, or wanting to please your negging friend – and how that shapes you decisions as you try to be happy in spite of the world pushing you around.

Her reply was, “Yeah, I think it’s just about normal people.

Oh yeah. 

Well anyways, well done to Sally Rooney for another brilliant book and if you are one of the few people who haven’t read it yet, stop holding out.

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