Sally Rooney is a big name in literary circles right now.
Her latest novel, Oh Beautiful World, Where Are You, hit the shelves this year (it’s on my to-read list!) making her one of the biggest names in Contemporary literature. Normal People was the book that defined her and there’s a big reason why.
I wasn’t expecting Sally Rooney’s Normal People to be so captivating. But hey, I found John Williams’ Stoner captivating so should I’ve been that surprised?
Normal People is about relationships, communication, anxiety, but above all – people. It’s the most relatable novel you’ll ever read.
Ok – there’s a lot to unpack so let’s dive into it.
At first, I was worried about Rooney’s writing because it sounded a lot like she was “telling” a story. Keep in mind that Sally Rooney is the novelist of the time so as I was reading the first 10 pages, I wondered what made her so exceptional. I thought she wasn’t good cause if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer is to show not tell.
Yet as the novel progressed, I realized that through her very unique narration of telling, there were a lot of things being unsaid that were very obviously there – and that’s why there’s so much to unpack.
And this style of narration is a big reflection on what the book represents. We’re getting to that in a bit.
A Highly Relatable Novel
Relationships are complex and they’re a two-way thing. Yet at times, we only see our side to the relationship and don’t get to see enough of the other person’s feelings and thoughts.
It’s really hard being with someone who doesn’t know how to communicate how they’re feeling – which is what makes this novel intense and highly relatable.
Throughout this novel, I was constantly telling myself “why is it that the characters are going through this, why can’t they just realize what’s better for themselves!” At points, I felt like grabbing them both by the hair and yelling at them to just talk, fix it and be together.
But that’s not how relationships in the real world work.
This novel made me realize how much is unsaid in relationships – and I mean any relationship.
We hold back a lot from saying what’s on our minds and how we really feel about the other person simply because we’re so scared of being judged by the other person.
And that’s why the novel is called Normal People because what the characters in the novel go through is what normal people go through on a daily basis.
Characterization is the backbone of this novel. As readers, we get to see the thought processes of both characters, Connell and Marianne, as well as their individual development. Yet it goes beyond just character development – it’s also about the development of their relationship.
So here’s some context.
Connell starts off popular and well liked yet as the novel progresses he realizes how miserable he is, leading him to be a very different person to who he started off as. The older he gets, he starts to distance himself from people, talks less and less, and has bad anxiety.
He realizes as he matures that his “friends” in high school weren’t real friends. He also realizes that the things that used to make him anxious didn’t actually mean anything. He was always scared of being judged all throughout high school yet that meant he couldn’t be himself.
Connell is aware that he is shifting into a different person – a mature one – which scares him because he knows he wants to stay attached to his teenage self that had small anxieties about his small high school world. And trust me, Connell is a really anxious adult because he never had the chance to grow up as himself and now that he can be himself – he’s not sure who he is. And that’s why Connell has no friends because he doesn’t know how to act around people while being himself.
And this leads to Marianne. I loved meeting Marianne at the beginning of the novel. She starts off as a very stubborn yet intelligent young woman yet by the end, she is damaged and she doesn’t like the fact that she’s damaged.
She blames herself and thinks that that’s why everybody doesn’t love her. Reality is that the people around her have treated her so horribly that they’ve convinced her that she isn’t deserving of love. This is more than just emotional abuse. She was violently hurt by her brother, her father, Jamie and Lucas which leads to an overall mistrust building in her when it comes to men. She expects that they will be violent with her and that that’s what “caring” is. At one point, she asks Connell “are you going to hit me” because she thinks that’s what’s normal.
What happens to Marianne in the novel happens to a lot of women – normalizing violence is very problematic. You can clearly tell in the novel that Marianne is a victim of violence against women. She knows that there is something in her that men want to control and dominate but she thinks that is normal.
And this made me question how women are treated. Misogyny still exists and these men aren’t aware that they are mistreating women. It’s really scary to be in these relationships – and hard to get out of them. What Marianne’s story taught me personally was to always prioritize myself, love myself, and to be aware of these toxic men.
At the end of the novel, we see that Connell has restored her trust in him. He’s told her that he doesn’t want to hurt her and that he does love her. She tells him to go to New York and study there for a year because “I’m always gonna be here” and you can tell she means it because she believes in him.
Although she still questions things, the second O’Connell reassures her of something, she believes him so we can see she has progressed. She is not fully OK or trusting, but we can see that she’s getting there. After everything she’s been through, it seems like she’s finally got what she deserves – she deserves a healthy relationship with Connell.
Connell’s character development defines the novel. At the end, he seems really good and he seems genuinely happy even though he’s on antidepressants. Connell’s a very anxious person and he doesn’t have friendships yet he is still discovering a lot of things about himself therefore, we can see he’s on his way. What’s a big change in him is how we can see he’s really communicating with Marianne.
And at the end of the novel, you can’t help yourself but say: “I feel the same way“. We don’t communicate enough because anxiety gets in the way. And we all have things we’re going through that we don’t talk about which causes issues in relationships.
What People Think
A recurring theme in the novel is “what people think”. We have all felt societal pressure in our lives and it’s hard to break away, not letting it get to you and just being yourself.
Marianne at first didn’t care what people thought of her and she was the outsider of town but the second she started to be liked in Dublin, she became obsessed with “being liked”. Connell was obsessed with what everyone in high school thought of him and he hid his relationship with Marianne out of shame – something that affects her for the rest of their relationship. He later on realizes he threw Marianne under the bus for the anxieties and judgements from other people that don’t actually matter.
And that’s the point of the novel – it doesn’t matter. What people think doesn’t freakin matter!
I’ve said this before – we come into this world alone as individuals and although we will have people walk beside us throughout this journey, there will be some behind us, some in front of us, and some that walk away. But we’re still on our own – and we’ve got ourselves to live up for.
Everyone else doesn’t matter if you don’t put yourself first.
And part of that means to be yourself for yourself.
That’s the most basic thing that you can give yourself – the freedom to be you.
Yet this novel shows us that all of what I’ve just said is hard to achieve and doesn’t happen overnight.
Everyone’s process to getting there is different but we all get there at our own pace.
So, Who Are The “Normal People”?
At first you’d think that the title is basic – but that’s the point.
As we’re growing up, we’ve probably thought at times “I’m not normal. I just want to be like normal people“. It’s something both Connell and Marianne ask themselves throughout the novel. It’s really subtle but it’s there.
And as you’re discovering yourself, it’s this idea of “normal people” that we call want to achieve.
Here’s what the novels tells its readers: being part of the “normal people” means being yourself with all your flaws and all your issues – recognizing yourself and that being yourself is the highest achievement of being “normal” .
And so there you go – that’s why Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the book everyone should read.
We are all Connell and Marianne in our own ways.