Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Long-listed for the prestigious ManBooker prize, winner of Costa’s Novel of The Year and scooping the title of Waterstones Book Of The Year – Normal People by Sally Rooney has been met with tons of praise, hype and intrigue. At just 27, Rooney has written two successful novels and been hailed as the ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation.’ Normal People seems to be a bit like marmite among the book community with some confused and disappointed while others sing its praises. When Normal People was selected for my book clubs February pick, I couldn’t wait to read it.

Connell and Marianne attend school together but they could not be any different. Marianne is introverted, unpopular and studious. Her family are wealthy and Connell’s mother, Lorraine, is their cleaner. Connell, on the other hand, is relatively popular and much more sociable. The develop a peculiar relationship – never quite a couple, clearly have feelings for one another but keep their relationship a secret. Their lives become even more intertwined when they leave for the same college. The tables are turned at Trinity. Marianne has fitted in seamlessly, making friends and finally starting to feel like she belongs. Connell is struggling to adapt to his new surroundings, struggling to find his feet socially and feeling out of his depth. The book documents their complicated relationship throughout school and college. 

I have so many thoughts and feelings on Normal People. On one hand, I can side with those who have felt it was overrated but, despite the book not having an overwhelming plot, I was fascinated by it. It left me conflicted – how could I finish a book feeling like it was ‘just alright’ yet be so full of thoughts and feelings? Normally, if I read a book and it sits in the ‘it was ok’ territory, I don’t have many observations but this, this was very different.

One thing I was impressed with was Rooney’s skill at including so many important topics in one book – mental health, domestic abuse, classism, and controlling relationships to name a few but, there are heaps more. Despite tackling so many different social issues in one novel, it flowed so well. I’ve read books that have tried to achieve something similar but, it’s just felt very try hard. The part of the book regarding anxiety and depression was executed really well and it was refreshing to see the portrayal of seeking help for such issues be so relatable for those who have had to do so.

Now, I did grow to love Connell and Marianne. Their relationship dynamic does remind me of many non-exclusive ‘couples’ I’ve encountered – never quite properly together but would being official really change anything? I found Marianne a totally broken character and felt for her in so many ways. But I found their relationship extremely bleak and quite difficult to read. It was frustrating and although I did grow to care for them as individuals, I never once rooted for them as a couple. I found their relationship quite problematic and in my eyes, unhealthy although I know that will be up for debate. 

As much as I found the book dark and pretty sad, I do think it does represent so many millennial friendships and relationships. Sadly, I’ve been in a few unhealthy romantic relationships growing up and could relate to Marianne at times which made me feel quite uncomfortable. I think it made me dwell on the eerie similarities teenage I and Marianne shared and that is probably the first time a book has ever touched on that nerve for me. It was powerful and I’ve found myself thinking about it and going back and forth on my feelings when I reflect back on the story. 

I think Rooney is a great writer but, I didn’t see the need for the absence of speech marks. It took me a little longer than usual to get settled into a book, purely because I had to try and gel with the writing format. I’m not sure why Rooney decided to leave them out but, I did find it infuriating. 

This book is SO conflicting for me but it’s 100% worth a read. I think it is a book that each reader will interpret very differently, which is why I think this book seems to be split into two camps – those who adored it and those puzzled by the hype around it. But, no matter where you sit, I think it is fair to say Sally Rooney has written a book that has intrigued the masses. Despite only ranking it a 3.5, I would recommend everyone to read it. It covers various different social factors we see in today’s society that I think have been tackled extremely well. it won’t be for everyone and I think despite writing this review, it will still be a book I’ll continue to ponder for a little while …

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