When I picked up my latest book, my boyfriend looked at the cover inquisitively. Are you reading a book called Normal People, he asked.
I am, I replied, absentmindedly flipping to the first page.
Maybe it’ll teach you how to be one, he said.
Two quick notes:
A tickle fight followed this conversation. I was victorious. And he got a major eye roll out of me, no surprise there.
Did you enjoy the lack of quotation marks? If so, you’re in for a treat reading this novel!
Normal People, by Sally Rooney, is one of those books my eyes have always lingered on in the bookstore, but my hands have never picked up.
When my high school friend offered to drop it off, an excuse to drive during quarantine, I couldn’t say no! She had just finished reading it herself and was excited for me to share my thoughts.
The following afternoon, I picked up the book and finished it within the same evening. It was one of those rare, one day reads. Something about it didn’t let me put it down, even though it wasn’t my typical read.
Normal People follows the relationship between Connell and Marianne throughout their late teens and early twenties.
At first, they’re high schoolers. Connell is rich with popularity, Marianne is rich with money. The reverse is not true.
In fact, Marianne has not a single friend and Connell’s mother is a cleaner who happens to work in Marianne’s family’s home. This is a fact that they ignore. No one at school knows this fact, and the two are determined to keep it that way. Especially after that connection leads to a romantic relationship between the two.
It’s high school and it’s the first 50 pages of the book. What do you think happens? They split up. I’ll let you find out why.
But they end up at the same University. Suddenly Connell is the odd one out, struggling to make friends and fit in. Marianne already has a boyfriend, plenty of girlfriends and people hanging on to her every word.
Well, well, well. How the turntables…
Is there still a place for the other in each of their lives?
As circumstances, people and life in general changes, this is a question they will grapple with. After all, they’re just two normal people, trying to figure it out.
PS — You’ll get used to the lack of quotation marks. It’ll be okay. It may not seem like it on page 15, but you will.
I tweeted after finishing the book that I had a lot of thoughts I needed to unpack before I could write this.
Quite honestly, I’m not sure I can or have fully unpacked them. When my friend texted asking if I’d like to borrow the book, she summarized it like this:
“I think the plot is just life.”
We talked again after I finished reading and came up with a pretty conclusive understanding of how we both felt when the book ended: “empty.”
I’m hesitant to say that because I know how it sounds. Who wants to read a book and feel empty afterwards? I don’t want that to deter you from reading it. In fact, I highly recommend reading Normal People. Just be prepared.
The first half of this book blew my mind. There was the classic “will they / won’t they”, but they already had so the stakes seemed lower. As a reader, you knew they needed to experience life to find their way back together. I rooted for them so hard.
And then in the second half, Rooney threw me for a big loop. I kept thinking, wait… should they be together? But I wanted to root for them so much that I just couldn’t decide. I didn’t know what I as a reader wanted, which made the ending (no spoilers) confusing.
Was that what I wanted? Was it not? Was it anything at all?
I mentioned in my last review of Things You Save in a Fire that it took me a while to pick the novel up because the cover differentiated it from other love stories and I didn’t realize that’s what it was about.
This book started the same way, but I knew it wouldn’t be a predictable love story. Don’t let the word “predictable” throw you off — I love that about love stories. It makes the journey the story, rather than the ending.
While reading this, I wanted the guarantee that Connell and Marianne ended up together. At the same time, I understood (from the cover and from Rooney’s writing) that I either wouldn’t get this, or it wouldn’t be sunshine and rainbows.
I was right.
In some ways, that’s a nice change. In other ways, it’s tough to believe in something for 200+ pages and to feel so strongly that something should be right and then not have it be. It’s like when you want Hermione and Ron to be together and then they get together but by then you realized maybe she was supposed to be with Harry. Or something like that…
I realize I’ve written all of this and haven’t shared too much about the book. I’ll keep it brief:
The characters are fantastic. I love the idea that they are normal people who don’t feel like normal people. They go through all these things that seem to differentiate them from everyone else… but then so does everyone else. Everyone has their own things. So at the end of the day, going through the highs and the seriously low lows is what makes us normal. The scenes that Connell and Marianne shared were my favorites by far. I sometimes felt like I speed-read through other parts to get to their next interaction. Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic. Scratch that, I know I am.
This book will bring you down. It’s hard and it’s heavy; it explores class and abuse and depression and more. And at the same time… It’s great.
If you need sunshine and rainbows, know that the cover is 50% blue for a reason. I suggest doing what I did: read it in one sitting and then watch a romcom afterwards. I picked How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. I’ll let you make your own choice.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
P.S.S — Turns out Normal People was just released as a limited series on Hulu! Check it out, I will be.