Normal People by Sally Rooney

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*No Spoilers Book Review*

Photo by the author

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney is a novel that follows the complex relationship between two teenagers, Connell and Marianne. They both attend the same secondary school as the story begins and later, both attend Trinity College in Dublin. This story is set during the post-2008 Irish economic downturn, which spanned 2011 to 2015.

I have a feeling that everything I disliked about this book, is everything everyone who loves this book enjoyed. 

*There isn’t much to spoil in this book, so I have marked it as no spoilers*

Let’s just jump right in. Starting with the things I disliked first.

The lack of quotation marks within the book itself was easy to look past after a few pages but became cumbersome. Having to constantly decipher between actual speaking and internal thought from either Connell or Marianne was not something I particularly enjoyed.

The repetitive miscommunications between Connell and Marianne also become rather tiring. The story opens with two very young and very flawed characters. We expect them to miscommunicate with each other and make mistakes. 

For example, during summer break, Connell tells Marianne he can’t afford to stay in Dublin (on-campus or in an apartment) for the summer and will be going back home. Marianne then later reveals she felt Connell was breaking up with her. This continues throughout the whole novel. With a few random “I love you’s” thrown in to keep it romantic.

However, Sally Rooney doesn’t let them grow from their mistakes. Instead, they continue miscommunicating and you sit there wondering how a novel that spans nearly four years, lacks a plot, and focuses on two main characters, can’t find the space to at least let them learn from their mistakes.

Oh yeah, there’s no plot.

This fact did not bother me as much. I have read stories that focused more on characters and have enjoyed them. “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Catcher in the Rye” are character-focused stories done well, for example.

Then we get to dive into the characters themselves. Connell is your “typical” popular, athletic guy who hides his inner book-loving self. While Marianne is the outcast, don’t forget, that she’s “not like other girls”. For a book that was published in 2020, there are a lot of things about Marianne and Connell that remind me of my early 2010s “Tumblr Girl” days. (If you know, you know.)

It is exactly these qualities that make the characters so unlikeable, and quite frankly, unrelatable. I am the about same age as the characters in Rooney’s novel and I would not be friends with either of them. I went to school with kids like them and unsurprisingly, they were annoying. Nobody wants to be best friends with a narcissist who can’t communicate.

This brings up another important point, the novel is set post-2008 Irish economic downturn, Connell’s mother is a house cleaner for Marianne’s family. This is their main connection to each other, yet it is also the thing that keeps them from truly communicating and letting the other in. Marianne comes from wealth, while Connell and his mother are working class.

Despite this, there were two absolutely un-redeeming qualities for me when it came to this novel.

The first is the glamorizing of Marianne’s eating disorder. Marianne becomes thinner and thinner as the story progresses. For example, the image of Marianne drinking a black coffee and having a croissant that she expects to hold her over for the entire day is meant to sound so “classy” of her but just comes off as cringe. 

My second biggest issue with this book was the ending. Sally Rooney gives us next to no character progression and then has the audacity, to leave off the book mid-conversation. Not only mid-conversation but yet another ridiculous type of conversation that Connell and Marianne keep gravitating back towards over and over because they (in four years) still are unable to communicate clearly with each other. 

The writing overall is easily digestible, it is a little “bare-bones” at the end of the day. Between all of the hype and the glowing reviews on the book’s jacket cover itself, perhaps my hopes going into it were too high. 

The book is promoted as young lovers dealing with their first love and the trials and tribulations that come with growing up. But the truth is that it is much more complex and at times, the story feels like it has taken on too much. Between skimming over mental health issues, triggering situations, Marianne’s eating disorder, and political and social aspects taking over relationships centered on class status, “Normal People” tried to accomplish too many big things.

This I can applaud Sally Rooney for. Her attempt to shed more light on these topics is so so important. However, she failed in being able to appropriately broach each subject and give it the time and attention each subject deserved within the story. 

We deserved to see Connell and Marianne grow as characters. We deserved to see Connell and Marianne once and for all, determine whether or not they wanted to truly be with one another. We deserved to see Connell and Marianne mature and rise above the demons of their youths. We deserved to see them begin to make mistakes as adults and become who they were meant to be.

We were robbed. 

Sally Rooney robbed us and took the quotation marks with her. 

All in all, it took me a long time to delegate my thoughts on this book. I read other book reviews, and all the other book reviewers seemed to love this book. Everyone felt “relatable” to these characters. 

If you loved this book, I am happy for you. I love many books that other people do not. However, I would very lightly recommend this book. I would also encourage anyone looking to read it, to remember that it is not entirely a romance novel, but rather a novel about two young lovers who both deal with some very heavy topics. 

If you did read this book, what are your thoughts? My intentions were not to tear this book to shreds but to rather understand why I disliked it so much and try to understand why it is many others inherently love this book so much. 

If you’re interested in reading this book for yourself, grab a copy here!

If you liked this book review, consider reading my thoughts on “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid and share your thoughts as well! The article can be found here.

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