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Review: Love and Identity in Sally Rooney’s Normal People

By Gokul KP

The on-again-off-again love story between the characters Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron forms the crux of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People (2018). The theme of the book isn’t an unfamiliar one, but Rooney has breathed a new soul into the love story trope with the use of engaging dialogues, contemporary politics, and appropriate transitions across time.

Photo: Random House Publishing Group / Hogarth

The protagonists know each other from high school. Marianne is an outcast there, labeled a 'weirdo' by her high school peers, but is simultaneously portrayed as smart and a bit rebellious. Connell is a football player - intelligent, just social enough, and one of the popular boys in school. Marianne comes from a wealthy family, whereas Connell’s mother works as a maid. Class difference as an element of the story is thus established right at the beginning. Marianne has had to live with an abusive family — an emotionally unavailable mother and brother — and this abuse continues to happen throughout the book. But Connell has a loving and empathetic mother in Lorraine, who sacrificed her education and career to live as a single mother after his birth.

The four years we see Marianne and Connell in the book — from 2011 to 2015 — is a compilation of events from their complicated relationship. Their social standings change as they leave high school and join the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. Insecurities, vulnerabilities, guilt, and anxiety are all in full play throughout this period.

As Sally Rooney takes us through the story alternating between both their points of view, she leaves nothing up to the assumptions of the reader. The characters communicate using succinct but adequate language. But these lines speak volumes about how Marianne and Connell feel about themselves and each other, and even what they try to hide in plain sight.

The events in their story only make it harder for them to be together at any point in their lives. Misunderstanding and miscommunication are rife, and sometimes it gets too frustrating. This especially hits close to home because these are situations we find ourselves in reality — the things we do or say to make things better but always end up making it irredeemably worse.

The book asks us questions, either through the characters themselves or through the eyes of a third person, that most of us have faced at some point. Are we worthy of love? Are we damaged, someone who can't be fixed no matter how much somebody loves us? The plot revolves around the lives of two youngsters, but the overarching themes could appeal to anyone, irrespective of age and gender.

“Most people go through their whole lives, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”

― Sally Rooney , Normal People

The book does not feature chapters. Instead, we get glimpses of their lives in intervals — weeks or months after a particular section of the book ends. What happens between these periods may or may not be revealed later on, but that is also the beauty of Rooney’s storytelling. We rarely get the complete picture of somebody’s life, and whatever we make of things with the available details and what they choose to tell us overtly influence how our relationships unfold. We see Marianne and Connell paint a picture of each other’s inner workings and character through their encounters, sexual and otherwise, only for them to unravel a few months or weeks later. For a moment, they think they have figured out the other person, and just when that certainty starts feeling too cozy, they find themselves back where they started.

Along with class differences, other issues also come to the fore as the story progresses. Privilege, mental health, pain, trauma, and sex are all important markers that play part in the dynamic between Marianne and Connell. Many political topics — wars, capitalism, economy, etc. — are mentioned in various instances in the book mainly because these conversations happen among college students, and these characters are supposed to be politically aware and vocal. The author could also have introduced these scenes to show that navigating love and relationships in an increasingly uncertain and chaotic global environment is tricky, especially if you refuse to form a part of the apolitical or the outright bigoted crowd. Critics have had divided opinions on whether Rooney’s writings are essentially political or she only uses them as props. I disagree with the latter despite the absence of explicit political messages in Normal People.

“It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”

― Sally Rooney, Normal People

I also like how Rooney uses the reversal of Connell’s and Marianne’s popularity to show how blunt society often is when it comes to embracing their obsession with social capital and disregard for people’s inherent personality traits. This is not to say that Marianne somehow did not deserve the attention she garnered in college. But Connell’s relegation to the fringes of the superior friend circles despite being frank and unassuming (in addition to other incidents in the book) underscores the pretentiousness of such performative cliques, whose members would use their knowledge of certain books and political points as some form of cultural currency. The book also shows how the parameters for this currency can fluctuate over time - ‘beauty’ was one of them during their high school days, and it becomes intelligence (or the performance of intelligence) later on in college.

The maturity that Marianne and Connell show right from the beginning despite being high schoolers is very striking too. It does not mean they act like adults all the time. But their interactions during the initial chapters can make one forget that they are high school kids who have yet to grasp the meaning of intimacy and attachment. At the same time, the nature of their relationship never fully moves on, even after years. It becomes an endless cycle of nurturing and hurting each other, subject to incidents where sometimes things get overwhelming for one, and the other decides to detach suddenly at another juncture. They process their pain and sense of loneliness differently — sometimes even seeking out physical pain and resorting to submission as a method to handle their demons.

But at the end of the day, their explanations and reasoning are acceptable to each other, and they reconcile. They always find comfort and safety in their company, something that stays true through a major part of the book.

I see Normal People as the story of two very talented and sensitive individuals who find the future of their intertwined lives at a crossroads, unable to make sound decisions due to their codependency. It perfectly captures the subtle changes in feelings that occur in people and how they go on to influence our behavior, especially with those extremely close to us. The story will find you caring for their poignant journeys again and again despite all their flaws and blunders. It keeps breaking your heart, but you continue reading — yearning to know more about their pursuit of normalcy and hoping to find that moment of joy and solace, which may never arrive.

Photo: Hulu / BBC

The book won the Costa Book Award for Best Novel in 2018 and the British Book Award for Book of the Year in 2019. It was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and the 2019 Women’s Prize for fiction while appearing at number twenty-five in the Guardian’s list of the hundred best books of the twenty-first century. A drama miniseries of the same name was also produced by Hulu and BBC Three in 2019, starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.


About the Writer:

Gokul KP is a Queer writer and aspiring journalist from Kerala, India. He holds an engineering degree and works as a Business Manager in Bangalore, India. His work, which spans fiction and non-fiction, has appeared on multiple websites and online publications and has covered topics related to mental health, politics, mainstream media, pop culture, and gender & sexuality.

He also tries to use the platforms available to him, including his Instagram account (@kpgokul), to spread awareness about climate change, LGBTQIA+ rights, feminism, etc. He is an ardent 'horror' fan and considers Stephen King a source of inspiration.


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