The social laws of high school dynamics govern Connell and Marianne’s behaviour. He is the popular star of the school’s football team, shy, well-mannered and handsome as he is, Connell is loved by boys, girls and teachers alike. Marianne, on the other hand, does not fit it. She is a loner, proud, private and not afraid to speak her mind on intellectual matters – a combination that is not always well received. The two would never exchange a word in the classroom, but when Connell comes to Marianne’s mansion to pick up his mother from her housekeeping job, the two teenagers start a strange and intimate relationship to be kept hidden from everyone else.
After graduating high school both Marianne and Connell are studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Now Marianne is popular. Surrounded by a group of friends that holds dinner parties and political debates, while Connell struggles to find his place in the city. During their university years, their relationship shifts and changes, waxes and wanes. Whether friends, lovers, or estranged again the pair cannot seem to stay away from each other for long. Their connection is special, and neither of the two can break it off completely. But some external force or misunderstanding keeps breaking them apart. They are each other’s closest friend, but can’t ever get close enough to support the other fully without getting hurt themselves.
The psychological insights and investigations are the most important ingredient in Normal People. Sally Rooney’s observations of social dynamics in a world in which what other people think about us is paramount are sharp and convincing. The significance and nuances of class and popularity is the focus of this novel, next to the conflict between the desire to be with others, part of a community and to form or position oneself as an individual. All of this social and psychological material is presented in an extremely spare prose. So spare, it is often rather flat and at times not particularly nice to read. At least that was my first impression. But after finishing the book I am still indecisive about whether the prose was perfect to highlight the accuracy of the psychological observations, or whether it was ever so slightly too simple. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
While I was not sure what to make of Rooney’s work initially, Normal People did grip me; I finished this short novel in one sitting. I enjoyed it as much as you can enjoy something that leaves you slightly miserable. The constant miscommunication irritated me, the atmosphere Rooney created was not particularly pleasant, but I don’t think it was meant to be. How frustrating Marianne and Connell can be makes this story so realistic; it is honest in its awkwardness. I would recommend Normal People to anyone who enjoys in-depth character studies and precise writing without unnecessary decorum.