I’m very late to the Normal People by Sally Rooney reading party. I only picked this book up after watching the Normal People TV series, which I really enjoyed. Such a great production! I’m usually a read the book first person then watch the movie/TV series, but I wasn’t sure if I’d like this book given all the mixed reviews on Goodreads. Some people love it, others hate it. It has many 5 star reviews and a lot of 1 star reviews. I think watching the TV series first made the book easier for me to digest. They both complement each other.
When I first started Normal People, I was a little put off by the dialogue not using punctuation. This is one of my least favourite things in a literary book. I found it jarring in the beginning, but I soon got used to it. There was also a lot of bland descriptions, such as about a character making a cup of tea or performing some other mundane task. As well as some other passages that had me scratching my head – like this one:
He put his hands in his pockets and suppresses an irritable sigh, but suppresses it with an audible intake of breath, so that it still sounds like a sigh.
But once I got past confusing descriptions, I started to enjoy this novel. Set in Ireland, Normal People tells the story of two pretty, intellectual young people – Connell and Marianne. They grow up in a small town in the west of Ireland and live very different lives at school. Connell is the smart, sensitive jock who everyone likes. Marianne is a loner with no friends who is whip smart and has a sharp tongue. Connell’s mum cleans Marianne’s house and it is there, out of sight of their schoolmates, that the pair enter into an intense secret relationship.
Things happen, school finishes, and Connell and Marianne move onto Trinity College in Dublin for university. They are no longer together and their social positions have changed. While Connell struggles to make friends and come into his own, Marianne is popular and is thriving. But like moths to a flame, they keep being drawn back together and then apart again over their time at university. They each have problems to overcome and much to work out, as do many young people trying to find their place in the world.
Normal People is told from the point-of-view of both Connell and Marianne as they drift in and out of each other’s lives. The narrative focuses on snapshots and different events. Sometimes months passes and you find the characters are with completely different partners or in different countries. The story jumps forward and backwards and this can be jarring. It’s not a book where the characters make sense all the time.
Both Connell and Marianne have problems communicating their feelings to each other and they often misunderstand each other or jump to the wrong conclusions. Part of this is their nature, but also the problems they are dealing with. But you do see them grow emotionally as the book goes on.
I felt frustrated by the characters and their inability to communicate effectively. But I guess that’s what makes this book real to life. Not everyone is capable of telling another person how they feel. You don’t get answers about everything in life or closure. Sometimes there is ambiguity.
At times, I felt the way the book is written distracted me from the story which is often the case in literary fiction where sometimes it’s more about the way a sentence is constructed then evoking emotion in the reader. Sometimes the characters also appeared a little pretentious as they spoke about ‘intellectual’ things. But then that can be quite normal of smart people attending university.
Normal People has been called a book for millennial or twenty-somethings. I missed out on being a millennial by one year so I guess this book is not directed at me. But unlike other readers who claimed they couldn’t relate to this book because they aren’t a millennial, I still related to this book. Being young and thinking you have all the answers but being clueless when it comes to relationships is something everyone can relate to.
Normal People wasn’t a five star read for me, but I appreciate it as being a bit of a challenge to read. I cared about the characters and could relate sometimes to their problems. I think watching the TV series, which is faithful to the book but offers a bit more padding to the story, really helped me. If I had read the book first, I may have struggled in places.
Verdict: A literary novel that will get you thinking and talking.