I read this book twice. It is a book that has made quite the splash—it was long-listed for the 2018 Booker Prize and is on every critical “ten best books” list that I have come across lately. It is the second book by the author, Sally Rooney, whose debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was also highly acclaimed. While I have not read that book, Normal People came my way recently, and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. Unlike many books acclaimed by critics, Normal People was very easy to get into and I no trouble reading it all the way through to the end. However, I felt that I had missed something—the thing that everyone was raving about—which prompted me to go back and re-read it, more slowly this time. I am glad I did, as I was able to appreciate the book a lot better and picked up on all the subtle nuances that I had missed in the first reading.
Normal People is completely focused—to the exclusion of everything else—on the relationship between a boy and a girl. It is a love story of sorts, but not the traditional kind where the two people meet, fall in love, and eventually get together (the happy ending), or are doomed to be apart (the sad ending). Rather than looking at the external circumstances that bring the lovers together or apart, the novel looks mostly inward at their feelings, which are—to put it mildly—very complicated.
The boy is Connell, the son of a single mother who earns her living as a cleaner, and the girl is Marianne, who goes to the same high school as Connell. While they see each other in passing at school, they get a chance to become better acquainted when Connell’s mother starts working in Marianne’s house and he comes by to pick her up after she is done. Connell and Marianne are attracted to each other and become lovers, but they keep their relationship a secret because Marianne is somewhat of a pariah at school—she is aloof, almost supercilious, keeps to herself and has no friends—while Connell is one of the popular kids. The secrecy eventually takes a toll on the relationship, which ends with Marianne dropping out of school and Connell trying to date other girls.
They meet again in college—Marianne had encouraged Connell, when they were still together in school, to apply to the same college that she was going to apply to—and despite trying to be with other people, they, more often than not, end up with each other. However, it is not an easy relationship by any means, as each of them has their own internal demons which torment them. Connell is always aware of his working-class background and he has a deep-seated inferiority complex because of that, and this is not something that his relationship with Marianne can heal. At one point, his condition degenerates to the point where he can’t even care whether he is alive or dead, and he has to start seeing a counselor.
On her part, Marianne is masochistic and gravitates towards relationships in which she is submissive and is beaten, which likely comes from being brought up in an abusive family with an elder brother who bullied and hit her. Connell is not a violent person and can never imagine hitting Marianne or harming her in any way. Thus, every though they realize that they love each other and will likely never find anyone else who is such a good fit, it is not enough for them to be together. The novel ends with Connell’s acceptance to a prestigious writing program in the US, a whole continent away from Ireland (where the book is set), and while he is not keen to leave Marianne, they both know that he will most likely go, because, as Marianne puts it, “I’ll always be here.”
While there is no “plot” in the story as such, what I really appreciated about the book was how well it captured the messiness of life and of human nature. Human beings are complicated creatures, with complex feelings and emotions, and even “true love”—for those lucky to find it—is not really a panacea. We still have to wrestle with our own internal demons. There are no pat answers, no magic cure-all for mental anguish or existential angst. People have to, first and foremost, find some measure of peace and equanimity within themselves before they can find happiness in a relationship. Even if it is the most perfect one for them.
Bottom line, you can’t live life by love alone. And this is what, ultimately, Normal People is about.
Author: Sally Rooney
Publication Date: April 2019
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.