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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Normal People by Sally Rooney

The connection between Marianne and Connell is the beautiful, haunting, swirling source of misery, heartache, and joy and fulfillment in the book.

Marianne, a solitary young woman living in a large house outside of town, and Connell, a popular athlete whose mother cleans Marianne's house, grew up together in small-town Ireland but were essentially strangers. Toward the end of high school they begin to hesitantly connect. This intersection of their lives leads to broken hearts, self-realization, true love, devastating misunderstandings, betrayals, and a strongly forged link between them.

I'm not sure what took me so long to start this heartbreaking and lovely and disturbing and deep novel by Sally Rooney. I think I was hung up on the "heartbreaking" aspect and worried whether there was enough "lovely" to help me get through it.

The connection between Marianne and Connell is the beautiful, haunting, swirling source of misery, heartache, and joy and fulfillment in the book. Their link promises more than it ultimately delivers on the page, as they spend long period apart and confused, lonely or hurt, yet are deeply tied to one another. The ending is ambiguous but Rooney manages to convey peace within it.

Normal People could carry many trigger warnings. The story involves persistent cruelty and abuse--which in part lead to Marianne's exploration of submission as she tries to flow with the wave of her overwhelming, ongoing lack of control rather than resisting it. She considers the fact that no one can be completely independent of others and tests out periods of fully giving in--through requesting a violent sexual experience, by stating (and sometimes acting on) her willingness to be subservient to show affection, and by serving as a live-doll artist's subject to be regularly constrained and manipulated. All of this brokenness and reactive behavior is tough to read, but Rooney doesn't offer melodrama, only depth.

Rooney delves into issues of mental illness by laying out the main protagonists' loneliness, depression, and panic attacks (as well as a friend's suicide) without judgment or overdramatization. The characters struggle at times, and one of the things complicating their lives is mental illness. Rooney offers no clear, too-easy solutions,--nor, in most instances, destruction--but characters consider their own recognized issues as they make decisions and move through their lives.

Marianne and Connell's bond and the roots of their relationship aren't straightforward or simple, but their link becomes essential to each of them in feeling like their true selves. Toward the end of the book, Marianne reflects on a potential fracture in their situation--it wasn't clear whether it was a temporary break or permanent--yet she is able to sit within the feeling that Connell and their years together (and apart) are an anchor of sorts, regardless of their status:

“He brought her goodness, like a gift, and now it belongs to her.”

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

I'm ready to embrace the television version of this story--adaptations often make me nervous and sometimes annoyed ("It didn't happen like that in the book!") but this sounds as though it's excellently done. Also: Irish accents, check!


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