Truly “Normal People”
Sofia Galluci-Giles discusses how Sally Rooney’s love story – in its truest sense – is a delineation of intimacy and love in any age
Understanding love – the feelings, betrayals, revelations and ultimate fails – have been at the forefront of human artistry for (arguably) ever. Rooney’s student-y, secretive and sensual evocation of Trinity College Dublin perfectly paints the backdrop to Marianne and Connell’s modern love story as watch we them wrangle feelings of intimacy and love for the first time. In a way, Rooney’s novel ensures that we too wrangle these feelings. Arguably that is what makes it so brilliant. Normal People is undeniably compelling, delivering readers a journey of contending with feelings of confusion, love, agony, heartbreak all as if we were feeling them for the first time again.
Following the success of her first novel Conversation with Friends written at only aged 25, Sally Rooney has become a literary phenomenon. Not one bookshop fails to restock her stories, as her focus on power dynamics and social structures hits a chord with all readers. Growing up from school to university, Normal People follows the friendship, fascination and love between Connell and Marianne, weaving in and out of each other’s lives and experiencing each other’s lessons in desire and tenderness. Starting out as the popular guy, Connell’s initial interest and relationship with Marianne is full of the teenage prickliness we see our awkward sixth-form selves having. When Connell sacks off unpopular and introverted Marianne, the social hierarchy which exists between them is inverted once at university. Entwining in and out of each other’s lives and the relationships that each of them have at university, (and without containing any spoilers) the pair mature personally, emotionally, sexually in ways that they are constantly overlapping one another.
Power sits at the central concern of this novel, the way in which beauty, class, intimacy and sexual intelligence acts as a fluctuating currency
On first impression, it can sound like a soppy teenage novel that tries to articulate that youthful vulnerability that fill the shelves of the young adult fiction genre. However, Normal People does more than that. Recently coined by the Guardian as what will be ‘a timeless classic’, I’d like to argue that what makes this novel so successful is its depiction of reality. Nothing about Marianne and Connell’s relationship over the years shy away from the grisly reality of first love. Rooney is honest about how ugly jealousy is, about how self-absorbed we ourselves can be in the vulnerabilities of it all. A social hierarchy dictates the terms of Marianne and Connell’s desire, which though sounds shameful, is a very authentic reality. It’s almost clumsy in the way their ‘situationship’ is at some points, which is so true to life; the failures of a miscommunicated text, realities to having sex with someone new for the first time, being honest about the things you like and don’t like.
Though the majority of their relationship exists entirely within the university bubble – what one could argue isn’t real life – this certainly does not discredit the honesty that this novel exhibits. Power sits at the central concern of this novel, the way in which beauty, class, intimacy and sexual intelligence acts as a fluctuating currency. The disclosure of abuse is exceptionally accurate – something specific about that moment of intimacy when you share something that makes you simultaneously the closest and furthest away from someone. Rooney’s honesty has such an ability to hit you around the face; they are human experiences and feelings that are almost always applicable at some point.
Having had relationships before and at university, and personally knowing how they can almost weave in between each other in regards to the lessons you and the other person learn from other partners; juggling it all feels overwhelming, and I think Rooney does an excellent job at creating a montage of different expectations and ideas learned from different partners. Again, it goes back to the clumsiness which informs Rooney’s world so well. When I began writing this article, I had a coincidental encounter whilst in London. I was sitting in a gallery next to a woman reading a battered, old copy of Normal People. It was filled with illegible annotations and scuffed edges. I turned to the woman and asked what she thought of it. Initially, she didn’t seem like she wanted to talk to me, and my very chatty self started to feel less confident the more I rambled on. The lady let out a long sigh and slammed the book shut. She said that she found it almost Victorian in the way narrative pathologizes Marianne’s sexual tendencies. That the internalised familial violence she reveals at the beginning somehow becomes part of her make up, rendering her unlovable and “victimises” her by her submission during sex, which as the novel fails to suggest, she might just actually enjoy.
It is ultimately a love letter to that one person that we will all have in the back of our minds when reading this
This was an interesting perspective that I hadn’t particularly thought of. Instead of framing Marianne’s sexual history on her learning and sexual interest, it instead turns to her history, labelling her as ‘damaged’ and questions consent. The lady then continued to reveal that she was only reading it out of a sense of obligation as she lived with Rooney for three years at university. I told her she was quite late to the party with this one, but it’s almost impressive how long she’s managed without reading the novel that has won her friend multiple prestigious awards. Though universally people resonate with this novel, the lady also told me how true to life at Trinity it is. She held it up in one hand and explained how it was like re-reading their university lives to the detail as it happened. It was like a reflection of their lives that Rooney had poured into a novel that was able to engage an incredibly wide audience.
So on that note, whilst there are some complicated nuances with Normal People that disregards some of the more intimate differences between people, it is ultimately a love letter to that one person that we will all have in the back of our minds when reading this. The person that taught us the first few lessons of trust, honesty, vulnerability and whose lessons we will always keep returning to, no matter how estranged we are to them now. Rooney plays with the idea that giving your everything to someone is actually quite liberating, that vulnerability is a form of courage – and I think there is something quite powerful in that.