Mari HowardJuly 20, 2020

Normal People

by Sally Rooney

I watched the television adaptation of Normal People before I read the book. If this mistake was shared by a large audience then many, like me, could’ve initially understood the main point of this story as mainly significant looks and glances, and episodes of “having sex”. Most indoor scenes were filmed in half darkness, the audience left staring into deep gloom. A shame, as they'll have missed a lot. When Lockdown intervened, I decided it was time to read the original and find out why Normal People had excited such interest. And was further encouraged by hearing someone unexpectedly praise the novel as ‘enjoyable’, saying how it had given him insights into how today’s young people think. And he is probably at least over 70, grew up reading Dickens from a young age, and has read widely ever since, including those long complex Russian novels more than once.

Anyone who reads the story will discover the subtleties which Sally Rooney has addressed in what’s been hailed (by some) as a definitive novel for the Millennial generation. I found this, Rooney's second novel, reflects a keen observation of events taking place within a student class or a friendship group, as they grow from young teens to 20-somethings, making decisions about who they are, who they want to be, and how this is to be achieved. The insights, (or memories, she was still under 30 when she wrote it) are acute, and having recently watched a production of Romeo and Juliet confirmed my feeling that as children stumble towards adulthood much of what goes on is tragi-comic, if in a smaller way than in Normal People or in Shakespeare's play. And it's somehow necessary - or ‘built into our DNA’.

I enjoyed the book much more than the TV adaptation: and not only because I could ‘see’ the action in my mind rather than staring into a dim dark screen. There is much to commend in this writer’s depiction of the life we live today, and the strange often troubled journey from adolescence to young adult. About how ‘difference’ is perceived from the inside and from the outside. Not only about class, though that is important as well, especially in a small community. The halting prose, at times reminiscent of a diary of the detached observations of a group to which the observer is an unattached alien, can appear banal and slow. But no: by tracing small moves (such as when describing the dinner at Marianne’s family house in Italy) we are taken into the mood of the characters themselves.  Dreamy, increasingly hung over, until the scene erupts with a quarrel off-stage, a spat between Marianne and her then-boyfriend which leads to progress in the on-going awkward relationship between herself and Connell, our two main characters, and various ‘friends’ who surround them. Young people are making decisions about who they are, who they want to be, and how this is to be achieved. Some are more trapped than others, but all are partially trapped by the families where they began.

I wonder, however, why Rooney never details why Marianne’s mother and brother behave so cruelly and indifferently towards her? All we are told is “My father used to beat my mother. Sometimes he beat me.” So, there was domestic abuse in her family—as “punishment” or possibly simply as control?  But why the specific and extreme rejection of Marianne?

Having misheard when watching on TV as Marianne tells Connell this, I thought that she said “My father raped my mother”. And concluded that if this was so, was Marianne the “product” of marital rape? This could result in her mother “hating” the baby she was “forced” to keep. The story could even be referencing the Irish law on abortion, only recently liberalised. Even to the ‘tyranny’ of the Catholic church in Ireland, which opposed both Marianne’s mother fleeing her abusive marriage and her aborting this foetus conceived in violence. But we don’t know this — it’s only my guess, making sense of what is unexplained. Her brother, again, may’ve “hated" or rather resented the baby, either seeing her as the evil product of a brutal father, or as the author of his mother’s cold distant behaviour and incapacity even to mother him. He might feel superior towards this unwanted sister, forced on the family. All this is possibly only in the fellow novelist’s mind, filling in the blanks; Rooney may have had no intent or interest in these aspects, only wanting to give her female protagonist reason for self-hatred.  I had misheard “used to beat” as “used to rape” – a more shocking statement, but a reasonable cause of this otherwise strange behaviour.

Alternatively, their father’s decease, also unexplained, had been “caused” by Marianne? Again the hatred comes from the outcome of some accident or rescue which left the family with Marianne but no father. For whatever reason, Marianne the rejected child has no early backstory, so this remains the basis of curiosity for the reader and of a certain dissatisfaction with the plot as a whole.

Reading reviews of the book, I came across several readers who’d found the ending unsatisfying or worse. Only a few months after our protagonists finally settle as a couple, they reach a situation which looks like it will break them apart, due to career prospects. This indeed reflects our society, where following diverse career interests has become a reason to part. Ironically, as Marianne perceives she is now both lovable and loved, she begins to realise that she can indeed now live without Connell and survive. Their long on-off relationship, his always having “been there for her” has resulted, along with other incidents along the way, in this change of self perception. It’s almost chilling how she now appears to be preparing to show him that she has a power of her own, the power of rejection. And it seems like she’s going to use this to proving a point to herself.

Does she share the cruel streak, the ‘hard heart’ of other members of her family? 

Is Rooney saying that Marianne is realising that she no longer needs actual Connell, the specific person? Or that she no longer needs a partner from the “lower class”, but will find happiness and satisfaction alone, or from those who are her financial as well as intellectual equals? Are we to understand that she has “used” him in order to become a “normal person"? 

Or is this that run of the mill, end of Uni something, which happens as thousands of young people as they graduate and move on into the four corners of the earth? Many years ago, young adults  often stuck with and married the person they had been with through college, but now they want more.  To experience more places, relationships, events.  And has Connell also “used” Marianne to normalise himself?  So does the writer describe a "new normal” — how as we grow into adults we acquire the desired and precious “autonomy” of what has been called the “Me culture”?

These are ideas which I’ve not seen discussed in the reviews. What do you, the present reader, think? The elderly, thoughtful and well-read reader I mentioned earlier (a Dominican friar, actually, with a wealth of experience in many parts of the world) both enjoyed and appreciated what he’d learned about today’s young people. Has Rooney given us a definitive picture?

NOTES: 1. Illustration

NOTE: 1. Cover photo. screenshot from Waterstones website.

2. I've given Amazon prices, not because I advise you buy from them but because all the suppliers give varying prices/savings... as it was Lockdown, I bought the Kindle version though usually I avoid Kindle & buy from 'bricks & mortar' or the Guardian bookstore.