Reviews of Normal People inundated bookstagram, booktube, and the book blogosphere in late 2018 and early last year. The premise of the novel lured me, and the critical acclaim it received promised some thought-provoking (or at least debatable) insights on contemporary life.
In other words, Normal People could be my favorite type of fiction: accessible yet substantial.
[A small note: this blog is alive!! I now review some of the books I finished on my Instagram account, but for books I have a lot of thoughts about, nothing beats enthusiastic word vomit on a good old-fashioned blog post.]
If you have even a passing interest in contemporary book releases, you’d probably have heard a bit of Normal People’s plot. Connell and Marianne go to the same high school in Sligo, a small town in Ireland. Both are academically gifted and are in the running to become class valedictorian, though Connell is thinly beating Marianne.
As individuals, they match well. Socioeconomically, it’s another story. Marianne is from a wealthy family. Her family owns what is essentially a mansion in Sligo and a holiday home in Italy. To hit home the difference of economic status between Connell and Marianne, we learn from the opening pages that Connell’s mother is employed by Marianne’s family to clean their house several times a week. Because Connell drives his mom to the mansion for the work, he and Marianne have opportunities to chat and interact with each other outside of school hours.
Connell is very popular in school. He is well-liked and a regarded school athlete. His peers want to hang out with him, the popular girls want to date him. Marianne, on the other hand, is a social outcast (or what cruel high schoolers would call a freak). She’s awkward and doesn’t fit in. Worse? She treats her peers’ bullying with insouciance and even contempt.
A romantic relationship develops between Connell and Marianne (no surprise!). Both treat the situation as a hookup, but we as readers know that strong feelings are what propel their bond.
Normal People continues to follow Connell and Marianne as university students in Trinity College, Dublin. In university, their social standing is reversed. Marianne’s gamine physique, interest in politics, and manners earn her popularity with the cool crowd. Meanwhile, Connell’s lack of style makes him socially invisible. His easygoing mien and desire to please everyone, once an advantage in high-school hierarchy, removes distinction in university. He is even at times called a “culchie” – an Irish redneck.
Connell and Marianne’s relationship changes and evolves. They are friends, they are lovers, they are no-longer-lovers-but-more-than-friends. More than an intimate peek at their bond, Normal People is the story of their challenges and growing pains in early 2010s Ireland.
Though Normal People is marketed as a romance, I am more compelled by Connell and Marianne’s coming-of-age story. Sure, the romance could be unexpectedly compelling (awkward and immature in the right places), but I wasn’t always convinced by the depth of their connection or why exactly they couldn’t stay away from each other. Read from a pure romance lens, Normal People is a pleasant read but not memorable. It’s more affecting and thoughtful as a coming-of-age tale. Connell and Marianne’s struggles to come into their own as young adults were absorbing; the focus is on their relationship simply because it is a large part of them growing up and becoming more settled in who they are.
When I read, I’m always waiting for the phrase or moment that will make sense of the book title. In Normal People, it unfolds when Marianne tells Connell that she wants to be like normal people; maybe it will make people love her. As time passes, Marianne learns that “normal people”, those popular and sociable, aren’t always good people. Often, people who try their best to be good have a bit of an outcast or fuck up in them. I love that. That’s life, isn’t it?
People sacrifice a lot to be normal and popular and liked. Sometimes you have to ignore who you are. Sometimes you must mute your conscience. There’s a line in Normal People about bullying that encapsulates this perfectly (which I won’t spoil!)
Normal People is often described as a millennial novel. While no book can comprehensively represent an entire demographic, as a millennial myself, I found Connell and Marianne’s growing pains relatable. Normal People beautifully captures what it is like to be in your early 20s, that exhilarating yet fleeting period in your life, when anything is possible and the world is your oyster. When you think you are special and you believe profoundly that you’re going to, if not change the world, provide some value to it. As a nearly-30 millennial, it made me sad for Connell and Marianne; they will not feel this way forever.
The novel is also preoccupied with the concept of social capital and how it changes and yo-yos over time. Marianne is a prime example of this: ostracized in high school yet popular in university – likely for the same reasons she was an outcast at school. Normal People comments on how quickly social standing can shift: a new location, a nasty rumor, etc. Is popularity worth chasing when it is so fickle? At the same time, is the contemporary pursuit of social capital fairer now? Any student of classic novels or history knows how fixed social standing was in the past (largely due to the lineage you are born into and the income you would likely inherit). Today, fortunes are more mutable.
To end this review, a miniseries of Normal People produced by the BBC (of course!) and Hulu is coming soon. I’ve attached the video trailer below. It looks like it’s going to be good (to me, at least). I am surprised that the miniseries will be 6 episodes long. Normal People is a short novel, so I had expected 4 episodes would be enough to wrap up the storylines. I’m curious to see if there will be added or expanded scenes. With the book’s author Sally Rooney writing the script, I think it’s likely.