I wanted to love this book and that is always a recipe for disaster, but sometimes that much-hyped book lives up to all expectations and I was hoping that this book would do just that. “Salinger for the Snapchat generation: critics unite to praise 27-year-old novelist” was the headline for one review I read. I guess I should have been wary from the get-go – I don’t like Salinger and I am not from the Snapchat generation.
I didn’t dislike the book. I liked Normal People, but I didn’t love it. I can’t say that I enjoyed it because it isn’t a book that you ‘enjoy’.
In a nutshell, the story is of a relationship between two people, Connell and Marianne. We are introduced to the two characters while they are in high school and we follow their lives through to adulthood.
In high school, Marianne is wealthy, beautiful, skinny, smart but a social outcast. Connell is poor, gorgeous, athletic, intelligent and popular. The two are drawn together and start an illicit affair. Connell is terrified that people will find out that the two are sleeping together and makes Marianne swear that she won’t tell anyone. Marianne adores Connell and keeps his secret. The reason why she does this becomes apparent as the book progresses.
The two go off to university and the tables are turned. Marianne is suddenly popular and sought after and Connell, due to his shyness, finds it hard to make friends. The two find themselves drawn together once again and begin a relationship. Though Connell adores and loves Marianne, there always feels like an imbalance of power. It would appear that Marianne needs Connell more than he needs her. Of course, this is quite a simplistic view and the relationship is much more than this. Over the years the two find themselves in relationships with other people. Marianne finds she has a masochistic streak and this takes her into some relationships that are far from healthy. From the outside, Connell appears to have a healthy relationship with his dull girlfriend but has he chosen the safe route to make himself believe he is happy.
The book focuses a lot on Marianne and that she feels she isn’t worthy to be loved by another person. Rooney allows the reader to believe that this is because she comes from an abusive, cold and unloving family. Personally, I felt Connell had a lot to answer for when it came to Marianne’s insecurities. Marianne’s first relationship was with Connell where she was sworn to secrecy because Connell was embarrassed and ashamed that he was sleeping with Marianne. I was also offended when later in the book Connell was “disappointed” in Marianne and use the word, “spinelessness” to describe her when Connell was the epitome of “spinelessness” as far as I was concerned.
Rooney touches on bullying in her book. I thought she made some excellent insights and her writing in certain parts of the book where bullying was addressed was thoughtful and beautiful.
You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied, but by bullying someone else, you learn something you can never forget.
As the book progressed, I found myself disliking the two main characters. I couldn’t understand why they were so drawn to each other. I probably disliked Connell more than Marianne. In lots of ways, I understood Marianne’s pain and her intense dislike of herself. I wish she could have learnt to like herself without Connell. I found Connell entirely selfish and indulgent. He said the right things and did the right things, but it never seems to come from a genuine place. I think he was more screwed up than Marianne and that she deserved way better. I never bought into the misunderstood, insecure, anxiety-ridden writer that Rooney made out that Connell was.
Normal People is a well-written book. The dialogue between the characters is thoughtful and beautifully written. I may have missed the whole premise of the book, but it all felt a little too trite for me, and even Rooney’s exceptional writing couldn’t save it (for me). I do think that Rooney is a smart and insightful writer and I did take a lot away from reading this book – just not what everyone else did. I do think she knows how to write emotion and I felt Marianne’s pain intensely. I think we have all been in that dark place where we have felt that we don’t deserve love.
I did find that once I started this novel, it was compelling reading, but I don’t think I was mesmerised by the Connell and Marianne love story.