‘NORMAL People’ is a story about many things – education, class, mental health. More than anything else, however, it is a story about love. As with all love stories, the author, Sally Rooney, relies on two central characters who are drawn to each other and then subsequently pulled away. This is repeated where they are moving to and from each other whilst battling many different elements within their society as they try to achieve that state of being, where everything falls into place, at last, so that they can be together.
Rooney’s novel is set in Ireland and focuses on a wealthy, but initially unpopular, high school girl who has a relationship with the poor, but extremely well-loved, son of her housekeeper. This magnetic duo, though connected on the cerebral level, lead different lives, one where Marianne wants to be loved, but, due to her abused upbringing, she seems to feel unworthy on some level, while Connell, with his many friends and popularity in high school, refuses to publicly acknowledge his attraction and relationship to Marianne. Therefore, the two are forced into a strange mutualistic state, whereby they are sexually and emotionally gratified by being with each other in secret; yet, they are both unable to get what they want even more than that, which is the same relationship itself, but without the demands and shame that come with secrecy.
This set-up is interesting because it introduces us to the complexity of the main players. Marianne and Connell are not mindless stock characters stuck in a tale of star-crossed love. They come across as real human beings, with layers to their personalities and ways of thinking. Marianne is a great student and a nice person, but the fact that she gives in to everyone around her, including her brother who physically assaults her constantly, and Connell himself who has sex with her and tells her he loves her and yet refuses to publicly acknowledge her, makes Marianne both a heroine that we want to be happy as well as a sad character who has been lost to tragedy.
Connell, similarly, is a star athlete, popular with both the guys and the girls at his school, has a close relationship with his mom, and comes across as a good guy, particularly in the fact that he shows love to Marianne, and yet his initial callousness towards her, the fact that he makes her sneak in and out of his house so she is not seen, or the fact that he asks another girl to their school dance, are factors relating to his identity that cannot be overlooked.
Such complexity makes the reader question whether this is why the novel is called ‘Normal People,’ because it focuses on specific characters and their failings, their indecision, their major flaws, that might be perceived as being removed from ‘normalcy.’ But maybe this is ironic, considering that such complexity actually only enhances their humanness, their ‘normalness,’ because there are more people that are bad at relationships, more people that are arrogant, more people that expect to be hurt, that allow themselves to be hurt than there are people who do not. Marianne and Connell are normal, not DESPITE their flaws, but, rather, BECAUSE of their flaws. That is just an unfortunate reality about people – most of us are messed up. That, simply, is the norm.
Marianne and Connell’s relationship, though initially very toxic, is as addictive to the reader as those two are to each other. Only about one-third of the novel is focused on their high school life. Rooney’s focus on the couple is not just limited to the teenage years. Before we even get to the midway point of the text, Marianne and Connell are going to the same college, where their relationship has gotten even more complicated and their roles within their new social circle have been completely turned around. Marianne flourishes at college, coming out of her shell and establishing new relationships and friendships that transform her,at least outwardly and socially, into a figure that her awkward teenage self would probably not recognise. Connell, meanwhile, struggles to fit in and flounders, becoming depressed and isolated with only Marianne to rely on as the life he once knew is whisked away from him. This reversal of sorts between Marianne and Connell is a compelling part of the book, because it allows us to see how much of a person’s personality is determined by their environment. If you take away Connell’s status and friends, what do you have left? If you remove Marianne from her abusive home and take away her loneliness, what do you have left? More importantly, how well do these two, pared down to their true selves, fit together, if they do fit together at all?
The push and pull that exist between Marianne and Connell are really how the rest of the novel unfolds. No matter how far Marianne goes, no matter if Connell is in a relationship with someone else, the two are always drawn back to each other somehow, only to fail again and drift apart before circling back to one another’s arms. Indeed, this technique might be the oldest with regard to love stories. After all, what is a love story but a journey in which two lovers try to find their way to each other, whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally, despite the obstacles in their way? Although Marianne and Connell’s journey weaves a narrative out of the back and forth, Rooney’s stands apart because there is no part of the novel where the reader feels as if he/she knows what is going to happen. This, compounded with the creation of such complex characters, leaves us wanting more. We never know whether Marianne or Connell will truly end up together, and that is what keeps us going on and on, page after page. We want them to be together, but we also believe they might be better apart. We wish they could have a happy life together, but have we really forgiven them for things done and said in the past? Are they the best for each other? These are the kinds of questions that the novel forces us to confront.
‘Normal People,’ with its unique portrayal of love might not be the story for people who devour pulpy romantic novels, nor is it the novel for people who despise romance in literature. This book is for those people who believe that love can bring the utmost joy, and welcome it into their lives knowing that, that love also comes with a tremendous amount of pain.