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Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

There’s been a huge buzz around this book again over the past few weeks, mainly down to the new BBC 3 adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel. Admittedly it took me few a watches of the advert to realise I’ve had it on my Kindle for months, I’d just never got around to reading it. I bought it after seeing it on the Guardian’s list of the top 100 books of the 21stcentury – it was number 25 – and promptly forgot about it. Last week I dived in to see what the fuss is about.

What Sally Rooney manages to do, is take us back to our younger years with the story of Marianne and Connell.

As teenagers they go to the same school, Connell is a popular, handsome and intelligent student who begins a relationship with unpopular, intimidating and equally intelligent Marianne. Her mother employs his mother as a cleaner and they get to know each other. Connell keeps the affair a secret from school friends out of shame. They later meet again at Trinity College in Dublin and become friends, this time it’s Connell who is struggling to fit in and find his place. We follow them over the next few years as they cross paths and build a strong bond and deep friendship.

I was worried in the early chapters that I wouldn’t be able to forgive Connell for how he treated Marianne. In fact, I thought I’d spend the book hating him, I was won round. It would be easy to sit and slate him completely, he doesn’t always make the best choices, he’s completely preoccupied with what other people will think, I was cheering when his mum pulled him up on it. However, we’ve probably all been the same at one time or another especially as teenagers. Who didn’t have the same anxiety at school? 

Marianne shows him, that there is a different life away from Sligo, where they’ve grown up. She pushes him to explore his passion for literature at college rather than studying to be a law because he thinks he’ll get a good job at the end of it and people will say “he’s done well for himself”. It’s something he does recognise early on, that there is a possibility of pushing boundaries and it’s her that encourages him.

“Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him.”

I loved how each of them developed through the book, how they come to understood themselves better and how each came to see how the other worked as they go from being teenagers to in their early 20s. It’s reminder that – no matter how much that time in our life can be romanticised – we’re working out who we are, what we want to do and what we want to stand for. What we see through the book is an exploration of their insecurities that make them who they are, how much they do love each other, despite taking the difficult route to get there.

“All these years, they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.” 

I took me a few chapters to get used to Rooney’s writing style, I am traditional I like quotation marks, but it didn’t hinder me. I really liked how each chapter moved through time by a few months as they came back into each other’s lives. It’s perceptive, it is after all how people tend to interact with each other, flitting in and out.

I’m still processing the ending; I’m not going to give it away. In ways maybe I’d have liked something a little more definitive. In others it was perfect, the idea that whatever happens there will always be that friendship and love between them, that they’d continue to weave in and out of each other’s lives. 

Now for the TV series, adaptations normally worry me, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about this one – I’ll let you know how it measures up.

radiosarahc View All

Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm

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