“Normal People” (2018) by Sally Rooney

Novel, published by Faber & Faber, August 2018, paperback edition, 266 pages. ISBN: 9781984822178.
Normal people | Prose & Paper

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people. […]

In what way? he says.

I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.

page 181

Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron grow up in the same small town, Carricklea in County Sligo in Ireland. She is from a wealthy family and is an outsider without friends; he, raised in poorer circumstances and without a father, is one of the popular students. Through the employment of Connell’s mother Lorraine with the Sheridans, Marianne and Connell get to know each other – and over the years develop a deep friendship and relationship.

Normal People is about relationships, family relationships as well as friendship and love. At the center of the narrative are Marianne and Connell, who can’t let go of each other and who share a familiarity that they seek in vain in other people. Through their friendship they come to know each other and their feelings better, they grow up together and learn to open up to other people. And it’s about family relationships marked by abuse and abandonment, and the impact difficult family relationships have on Marianne and Connell. A third major theme is the class difference between the two: While Marianne owns a vacation home in Italy and has no financial worries, it’s the opposite for Connell. His single mother cleans houses to make a living, and because of a lack of money, he moves back to his hometown during summer vacation, and keeps his head above water with side jobs. The class difference becomes especially apparent during their student days in Dublin, when Connell meets Marianne’s friends, who also grew up privileged. Last but not least, Normal People addresses mental illness such as depression, and in no way glosses over it.

With the exception of a few flashbacks, the story is told chronologically, marked by the headings in the form of indicating the month and the year. It is told clearly, to the point, without flourishes, unnecessary embellishments or ramblings. Nevertheless, there are great feelings, sentences that hit the heart, such as:

Marianne, he said, I’m not a religious person but I do sometimes think God made you for me.

page 113

or when Marianne says:

I didn’t need to play any games with you, she says. It was real.

page 134

Quotation marks are omitted from the verbatim speech, so there is no marking of narrator and character speech. This can be confusing at first, but it has the effect of drawing the reader into the story. This type of narration makes the focus of the story less on what is said and more on what happens between the characters, the connection between the two main characters that they themselves cannot really put into words.

The book resulted from Rooney’s first narrative about Marianne and Connell, which was published by The White Review in 2016 under the title At the Clinic. In an interview with New Statesman, Rooney explains the pair’s relationship had so much history that she ultimately decided to tell their story from the beginning and in chronological order – which became Normal People. The short story is available here:

The Hulu series Normal People is based on Rooney’s book.