Never before has romance become so real. Gone are the fluffy lines and sweet moments as Sally Ronney drags her readers kicking and screaming back to reality. Revolving around two young people that perfectly encompass all the hurt and pressure the world places onto fragile lives, it’s no wonder that Normal People was such a hit when the TV series was released earlier this week.
Marianne spends her lunch breaks reading and her free time studying in her parent’s expensive mansion, reclusive and misunderstood. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s mansion. Bright and athletic Connell is loved and respected in his school community which is why, when a relationship sparks between the two, he insists on secrecy. Achieving the top grades of anyone in their year the two leave for Trinity College University in Dublin, stepping away from the small town and everything they’ve ever known and hurdled into the reality of adulthood. As social class and privilege stretch between them, the reader can only watch as they learn who they are and what they deserve in simple yet dramatic tale.
Marianne’s difficult home life and the rejection she feels from those around her leaves her vulnerable and unsure of what she deserves. Her lack of social experience leads her to toxic, dark and unhealthy relationships and friendships. While she appears confident and comfortable with herself to Connell it is clear from her own narrative that she still seeks to find her self worth in others and is less comfortable than she demonstrates. Her narrative takes a darker turn as she seeks to be degraded by others, struggling to find what she deserves and how she should be viewed. With these heavy undertones her story is confused and powerful, highlighting what wealth can and can’t buy you as the cracks beneath her confident mask begin to show, her character development an emotive backbone to Normal People.
Connell, our second narrator, is shy and lonesome. Set apart from his childish peers while still humouring them to remain well liked he considers Marianne’s confidence and worldly rapport his superior. As he steps from his popular bubble at school into university he struggles to decide who is, realising his social standing sets him apart from his wealthier peers at university, and discovering that the facade he uses to gain popularity leaves him without any meaningful friendships. Connell struggles with depression and self worth, his critical nature of his own character and offensive self reflection make his chapters a stirring and poignant monologue. While more concerned with his image than Marianne the two share a similar, over arching worry of not being good enough as they face common challenges and homogeneous pressures instilled by society.
Normal People presents its readers with a unique writing style. The use of pronouns instead of character’s names and lack of speech marks can make the novel difficult to read but should not put any reader off. Although this style is difficult to adapt to the words are artfully crafted and the personal perspective each chapters gives, providing an insight into our protagonists’ personality and feelings gives readers a strong apathy with our narrators. The language the novel uses is simple, favouring sparse descriptions and precise details artfully dotted throughout the plot, creating a sense of the scenes while never dwelling on any particular setting. The novel keeps emotions and it’s characters at its core which balances well with the sparse, almost diary like prose it uses.
The novels setting varies often as the characters progress through life. The small town where Marianna and Connell met and grew up is, of course, poignant to both their stories but neither feels a particular affinity for it when they leave for university. While at university the characters move between a variety of locations: Marianna’s flat, other friends houses, Marianne’s summer home and the university itself. All these settings are described in brief, enough detail given that readers get a sense of the location, it’s wealth and part in their story, but not a complete description. The backstory of each character is mostly shown, our narrators will rarely explain to the reader their social status, family dynamic or friendships but rather leaves readers grasping the situation based on what they can see, making the tale engaging and quick to read.
The theme of class weaves itself through our young protagonists lives. Marianne’s rich family gives her certain advantages as she moves through the world: never needing to work while at university, pursing a subject that interests her without worries about a future career and applying for scholarships out of pride rather than need. Parallels are drawn between Marianne and Connell as he struggles with the practical problems of paying rent and affording his tuition. While at school these differences make little impact on their lives but when they step into university suddenly it opens chasms between them. It was refreshing seeing this aspect that is certainly true for many students appear in literature and I was only disappointed that Rooney did not continue to explore this theme as the characters enter their final year of university and navigate the months after, where class and privilege continue to severely impact a young person’s future.
Mental health is another prominent and important theme Normal People highlights. Depression is a fact seldom acknowledged yet it effects many people. Through Connell’s visits to the doctor and prescriptions he admits after a friend’s suicide that he might be struggling, to Marianne who shows her own struggles as she reflects on her character and upbringing. Poor mental health effects most young people at university yet it is still often seen as a taboo topic and rarely explored in literature. The portrayal in Normal People was realistic as it uncovered the struggles both protagonist go through and the reflections they gain as they navigate a stressful yet pivotal time in their lives.
The novel felt well paced and the plot is engaging, it’s not necessarily fast but instead leaps from scene to scene, which can be somewhat disorientating yet still part of the novel’s charm as the short tale attempts to cover years in our readers lives, each scene beginning with the reader not quite sure where our protagonist is. The reader is given the opportunity to intimately know these characters as snapshots of their lives through school and into university are presented, covering their struggles and their successes, showing the fleeting or permanent impacts of the friendships and relationships that shape Connell and Marianne’s world.
Normal People is not a life hearted read. It’s as real as life itself, covering themes of depression and suicide, dealing with the baggage that Connell and Marianne carry with them and demonstrating a plethora of unhealthy and toxic relationships. The target audience would be anyone at university and above, offering adults and young adults a chance to reflect, relate and emphasise with the difficulties Marianne and Connell face.
Normal People is romantic, complex and dark all at once and any reader must go in prepared to grapple with the reality Rooney artfully illustrates in such a simple way. With uplifting undertones and difficult realties this novel cleverly encompasses so much of what it means to be a young person while only really skimming the surface of the two young lives and the future ahead of them that this novel revolves around. Nothing is resolved yet it is still perfectly complete, desperate, lonely and real Normal People is an emotive novel any reader will enjoy.