A few days after reading Sally Rooney's Normal People in one sitting and I'm still not quite sure what I think. My instinct is that this is good writing doing a lot of work to cover up a rather hackneyed love story. Many reviewers seem to be comparing it to the likes of Austen or other more traditional romance, where the delicate will-they-won't-they dance of the two protagonists takes precedence over the more earthy stuff. And maybe that's okay? Maybe it's just not what I'm used to, because it's true, I don't read a lot of books like this.
There's no doubt that Rooney writes excellently about the inner lives of her characters, documenting in excruciating minutiae both everyday awkwardness and transcendental love. In this novel, Connell and Marianne - one a popular boy from a working-class family, the other a strong-willed girl from the better part of town who shuns friends - have a conversation in the latter's kitchen that changes things between them forever. For the following few years they are unable to be truly together or not together, dithering between other lovers and one another. There are some wonderful moments that explore how humans relate to one another, like when Marianne notices that 'If she was different with Connell, the difference was not happening inside herself, in her personhood, but in between them, in the dynamic'. There is tension between this idea and Connell's later on in the novel, who feels as though 'his personality [is] like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others'. How to toe the line between allowing something new and beautiful to come from relationships between people, and letting yourself to be governed or overpowered by the opinions of others? Rooney challenges the rhetoric of the closed, individual self in this novel (which is something I typically applaud), and looks pointedly to the tense relationships between love, power, and sex. Ideas about Connell's inability to reconcile his public and private lives, and the sheer intimacy he feels with Marianne as a result made for a particularly interesting theme.
Once again I find my opinion flip-flopping after finishing that paragraph - maybe this novel does have plenty to redeem its sometimes clichéd storyline. But haven't I read this before? I haven't even read One Day and yet it reminds me of it. Do we need more novels about university students in love? I found that the class divide between Connell and Marianne was rather superficially described, a mere plot point pretending to be something more. Why was Marianne's toxic family so one-dimensional? What about the unhealthy aspects of the two's relationship? Sometimes I think that it is criticised sufficiently, such as when Connell recognises that he has an 'effortless tyranny' over Marianne, and that 'He has never been able to reconcile himself to the idea of losing this hold over her, like a key to an empty property', while at other moments I think it is romanticised further, as in the final lines Rooney writes that 'He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her'. Do I like this because this is what people take to be good literature or because it is good literature? When we get lines such as 'cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also', is that really as ground-breaking or profound as its made out to be? Why does our female protagonist have to be rescued by her counterpart? It’s certainly true that it's important to allow female characters to be vulnerable and to explore mental health issues and those of abuse, but is it a trope that's too well worn in romantic fiction? I'm not sure about any of this, and the novel raises all these niggles in me.
I enjoyed the reading of this book, but I'm not sure I like this book. I'd be interested to see if Rooney's Conversations With Friends has the same effect, so that might be one to try, and if you have read either of them, I'd be interested to know what you thought.