Normal People

Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People is about people. No subject fascinates us more. It’s why storytelling arose. Helping us understand the people we live among.

The novel challenges readers to understand its two chief characters. Are they the “normal people” of the title? Not exactly. In fact they themselves are prone to questioning whether they’re “normal people,” like others of their acquaintance. But what is “normal?” Everybody is different in their own ways. These two are different — but different within normal parameters.

The book follows them over four years, in high school and college, in contemporary Ireland. Connell is a footballer, social, popular with his friends, without much in the way of issues. Normal enough it seems. Until his entanglement with Marianne, who is more of a “case.” Very smart and a quintessential loner, she observes the social jockeying among her classmates with anthropological bemusement, content to hold herself apart. For that, they in turn consider her something of a freak.

Connell’s mother works as a sometime cleaner in Marianne’s more affluent home. That link leads to sex. But Connell dares not acknowledge their relationship openly, to protect his social standing. For a prom-like event, he asks a different girl. Marianne is hurt to an unexpected degree, beclouding her connection with Connell.

Yet it continues as he intentionally follows her to college. There Marianne, freed of her high school baggage, soon molts into not quite a wild party girl, but something in that direction. Now suddenly attractive to males, she finds she likes it, and uses it. She has a boyfriend. Connell has a girlfriend. But meantime their bond with each other endures and deepens.

Are they actually in love, after all? Not a simple question. Sometimes it is one, in human affairs, but often it’s more complicated. The book puts these two people’s feelings under a microscope. It’s not enough to just report what they do and say. There are underlying reasons, sometimes multiple and even conflicting reasons. Such nuances the author exquisitely, sometimes Proustianly, explores.

And where does it all end up? Just when the pair seem to have given in to the fact of their being inextricably together, it ends not with a bang but a whimper. That seemed very fitting. Ambiguity is not banished. Life can be like that.

In reading such a book, one seeks to better understand other people, but also oneself. Unsurprisingly it made me ponder upon my own ancient history in relation to the characters. I could identify somewhat with Marianne, except that the social business she consciously disdained was in fact completely invisible to me. Reading something like this makes me think — was all this kind of stuff really going on, all around me, during my school years, and I had no clue?

It still seems a miracle to me that I eventually grew into a husband and father. A normal person. In some ways at least.

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