September 10, 2021 | LIFE | By Carlee Castillo | Photo by Sierra Romero
“Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.”
Are ‘normal people’ important enough to write about? Can ordinary stories be meaningful and life-altering? These questions are posed by Sally Rooney’s latest novel, “Normal People.” Published in 2018, the novel has amassed a cult following and become an established best seller in the young adult genre.
Connell and Marianne, two ordinary Irish students, are centered throughout the text, continuously pursuing and withdrawing from each other. Their relationship is constantly in flux, beginning at their secondary school in County Sligo, Ireland and, later, Trinity College Dublin.
Frankly, the novel is not particularly exciting. There are no grandiose romantic gestures, no car explosions. There is barely a plot to indulge.
However, Rooney manages to enrapture her readers through the commonplace narratives of two very damaged people. The ever-changing affair between the main characters is messy and frustrating. The inner lives of Marianne and Connell are frightening. The chokehold of perception, the ache of pining, and the burden of constant onlookers plague the protagonists.
The characters care about what people think. They are often unkind. They make mistakes and do not apologize. Ultimately, the story is relatable in the best and worst ways, but that is what makes it beautiful. Miscommunication, confusion, and general ugliness are inherently human qualities.
Marianne, although almost preternaturally intelligent, is a complex character — a normal person. She does not adhere to an ultra-feminine, maternal archetype as so many women are made to in literature, nor is she made responsible for the character development of the male protagonist.
Marianne is damaged in and of herself. Her dark fantasies and psyche are elucidated. Her insecurities are often discussed and explored. Challenged with differentiating between perception and truth, Marianne believes she “lacks warmth,” a notion those close to her contest.
Like her readers, Rooney makes it apparent that Marianne and her development are anything but stagnant. Although she is described as affluent, lonely, and physically unappealing in the primary act of the novel, Rooney details Marianne’s shift into the opposite as she begins university. Marianne is a character easily translated into real life: a dynamic individual riddled with insecurity and imperfections.
Similarly, Connell defies simple categorization. As Marianne’s foil, Connell is deemed working class, popular, and attractive throughout the first half of Rooney’s work, later shifting to the adverse. Despite his initial social popularity, Connell is quiet and introverted, struggling to engage with his peers. He also suffers from anxiety and depression throughout the book.
Ultimately, Connell is defined by his self-consciousness. He is debilitated by the pressure of perception. His attention to the thoughts of others denies him love and healthy communication. Connell longs for social acceptance, a desire all too familiar with Rooney’s audience of ‘normal’ people.
Connell and Marianne are manifestations of ourselves. The author appeals to the ordinary, allowing her readers not only to recognize beauty in the complex, unglamorous relations of her protagonists, but in life. In all, “Normal People” is an unexpectedly poignant display of identity and human interconnectedness — how our untidy relationships and unpolished habits are meaningful and worthy of exploration.