A Novel Concept

Irish Author’s Endearing Work Hardly a ‘Normal’ Novel

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By Michael Malone

“Normal People” tells the tale of two young people in rural Ireland. Connell is a popular kid at school, handsome and good at sports. Marianne is an outcast. She’s super intelligent, but her dodgy social skills translate to zero friends.

Well, one friend.

Connell is working class, with a mother but no father. Marianne is loaded, and her father, too, is out of the picture. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s mansion, and so Connell and Marianne get to know each other when he drops off his mom or comes to pick her up.

A relationship blooms, but they keep it a secret from their classmates.

The kids finish school and venture from Sligo to Trinity College in Dublin, where Marianne can shed her awkward, friendless persona. She actually flourishes in her new setting, with lots of friends, and boys who seek her out. She’s also pleased to be out of her abusive home, where her mother ignored her, and her brother was violent with her.

Connell, for his part, struggles with anxiety and loneliness in Dublin.

Marianne and Connell both find new mates, but never quite excise the other one from their hearts. Their shaky partnership courses throughout the whole of the novel. They are best friends, but the with-benefits part of it always seems to complicate things.

“Normal People” is a very entertaining read. There’s not a whole lot of plot, but the book offers two complicated, compelling and, dare I say, unforgettable characters, and the reader can’t wait to see what happens to them next.

Author Sally Rooney has been a fixture in the fiction scene despite her young age; she’s 32 and grew up in County Mayo, Ireland. She studied English at Trinity, and got a few poems published in the Dublin literary mag The Stinging Fly.

Rooney’s experience of being a rural kid – a “culchie,” in Irish lingo – and finding her way in big-city Dublin comes into play for Marianne and Connell at Trinity. A profile of Rooney in The New Yorker in 2018 said, “Like her ‘culchie’ characters – milk-drinking provincials, in Dublin vocabulary – she was aware that her class status was in transition, that her intellectual and sexual capital was intersecting with real money in ways that were hard to make sense of.”

Rooney’s literary career began in a non-traditional way, with a 2015 essay in Dublin Review, entitled “Even if You Beat Me,” about her time on the competitive debating circuit as a teen.

“Normal People” was released in 2018. Rooney’s other novels include “Conversations with Friends” and “Beautiful World, Where Are You.”

“Normal People” moves very quickly. It’s a wispy 287 pages, and there’s loads of dialogue. (Curiously, Rooney does not use quotation marks.) The title is a bit dull, but the story of Connell and Marianne is full of life.

GoodReads gives the novel a 3.81 out of 5. A New York Times review of “Normal People” began, “Sally Rooney’s sentences are droll, nimble and matter-of-fact. There’s nothing particularly special about them, except for the way she throws them. She’s like one of those elite magicians who can make a playing card pierce the rind of a watermelon.”

Rooney writes of Connell, “Multiple times he had tried writing his thoughts about Marianne down on paper in an effort to make sense of them. He’s moved by a desire to describe in words exactly how she looks and speaks. Her hair and clothing. The copy of ‘Swann’s Way’ she reads at lunchtime in the school cafeteria, with a dark French painting on the cover and a mint-colored spine. Her long fingers turning the pages. She’s not leading the same kind of life as other people. She acts so worldly at times, making him feel ignorant, but then she can be so naive. He wants to understand how her mind works.”

The TV show came out on Hulu in 2020, with Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell. You probably know Edgar-Jones from “Where the Crawdads Sing.”

Near the end of the book, Connell, who has a bit of a tough-guy vibe, confronts Marianne’s abusive brother Alan as Marianne sits in the car. Rooney writes, “Marianne is waiting silently, one hand clutched to her face, the other lying limp in her lap. Connell sits in the driver’s seat and wipes his mouth with his sleeve. They are sealed into the car’s compact silence together. He looks at her. She’s bent over her lap a little, as if in pain.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do.” Connell responds, “Don’t say sorry. It’s good you called me. Okay? Look at me for a second. No one is going to hurt you like that again.”

The novel takes place from 2011 to 2015. As it ends, Connell, a budding writer, has an offer to study in New York. It’s a tempting proposition, but it means he and Marianne will be on different continents.

Then again, they never seem to let each other get too far away.

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children.

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