By Lynn Ford
There is a point in one’s life — that can last a day or even years — in which one questions life and its purpose. The transition from high school to college is usually the particular time that one experiences this moment. Sally Rooney depicts this journey in her book Normal People from the perspective of two characters, Connell and Marianne, as they navigate the complexities of social class and relationships.
The on-off relationship between Marianne and Connell drives the plot. Marianne is introduced as an intelligent but socially awkward girl in high school who comes from a rich but abusive family. Connell, also smart, is the popular jock and meets Marianne through his mother, who works as a house cleaner for Marianne’s family. Their high school relationship is kept a secret for the sake of Connell’s reputation but eventually dies out because he is afraid of people’s opinions. They meet again in college where their roles are reversed: Connell is finding it difficult to make friends, coming from the middle-class, while Marianne is socially adjusted and comes from an upper-class background. This is where the reader might wonder: will these two ever be together? Will they find happiness elsewhere?
I was thrown off in the very beginning of the book because of the dialogue, which lacked quotation marks. But that was easier to get used to than I thought. I read the book effortlessly and was easily able to distinguish between narration and dialogue. However, a new problem arose: I did not want to continue reading. The struggles of the characters, particularly that of Marianne, were too emotional for me.
Sally Rooney seems to address what it means to be “normal” and how painfully difficult it is to try to be “normal” or even realize what that means as one grows up. It was hard for me to read mostly because I related very personally to Marianne as she embarked on this journey. I felt as though she was me and I was her on some unhealthy level. To Connell and to others around her, she was impressive and intimidating, but reading from her perspective gave me insight that deep down she felt as though there was something wrong with her. Rooney captures this so well with the way Marianne finds partners who abuse her both physically and mentally during sex and how, toward the end, she feels oddly separated from the world around her. This is evident when Marianne narrates:
She experiences a depression so deep it is tranquilizing, she eats whatever he tells her to eat, she experiences no more ownership over her own body that if it were a piece of litter. . . . people have seemed to her like colored paper shapes, not real at all. (196-197)
Rooney’s characters come to life: they have real emotions and experience real events that shape them and make them the people they become. She depicts their lives as an unknown journey, and this is what makes the book so emotional. I wanted to hate the book as soon as I began realizing Marianne is who I might be like if I were in an unhealthy state of mind. But by the end, I could not help but appreciate Normal People.
The reader takes the journey with Connell and Marianne to find out what it means to live, to be “normal,” and to have someone to love and be loved by, as painfully real as it is. Each scene is carefully constructed as if to make sure the meaning of each word, every glance from a character, or the subtlest of actions are noticed. For instance, when Connell arrives at a funeral, his notice of Marianne is very descriptive:
Marianne, he said. He said this aloud without thinking about it. She looked up and saw him then. Her face was like a small white flower. . . . Marianne touched the back of Connell’s head with her hand. Everyone stood there watching them, he felt that. (216)
Rooney also utilizes a good progressive development of characters – one can see the maturity in the way they act and how they see the world – one can tell they are different people from when the book started. But by the end, Rooney’s resolution is satisfactory. Normal People has given me a hope that I am not the only one struggling through this journey of finding love, finding life, or finding meaning. It has touched some part of me I wanted left alone. But now I am glad I was touched. Some questions are too scary to ask, and Normal People gives the reader the opportunity to ask them.