Chic or Weak? | Normal People (2018) Book Review
by Rory Buccheri
Normal People is the title of Sally Rooney's much-awaited second novel, winner of the Costa book award in 2018 and heir to a successful opus primum, Conversation With Friends.
The novel focuses on the lives of two students, Connell and Marianne, and on their transition from the ambiguous realm of secondary school into university and adult life.
The author opens a window on several years Connell and Marianne spend together: from the deepening of their friendship as teenagers until the end of their studies at Trinity in Dublin.
While these time-lapses promise much in terms of character and plot development, the result is an excruciating journey with a lot of dialogue and no communication whatsoever. Though the output of verbal intercourse is rich, every chapter ends with a bitter taste of not having listened to, or having been a part of, anything.
The main thing I find moving the plot of Normal People forward is this odd, sex-centric universe in which every action is stimulated by the main characters having – or not having – intercourse with each other or one of the other characters.
Reading the novel, I am constantly pulled out of the story. I, as a reader, am conscious of the hand of the puppet master moving the characters. Two hands press my ears painfully, holding my head so I can’t escape the scene: flavourless nudity and inconsequential, filler sex.
It is sad to see how the author lets sexual intercourse overshadow verbal intercourse, at the expenses of a promising story.
The pace starts fine, if you are willing to put up with teenage drama straight away and wait for the bee-juice to turn into succulent honey. However, this book goes to great lengths to promise the literary honey, but systematically fails to deliver. The moment of climax is the change between high school and university, after which all novelty is traded for a boring rendezvous of who shags who and how, making me lose appetite for the novel progressively.
I have a problem with the main female character, Marianne: full of potential, her story is rich in tension, but the narrative makes it seem she's begging for sympathy instead of genuinely earning it from the reader. She's entitled, but will carry all kinds of political conversations across to signal the opposite (not unlike the author herself; see Rooney's history of mentioning Marxism abundantly, when she is a product of an élite who can afford much ideology talk and no concrete action).
For what concerns her counterpart, Connell, the only moment in which I feel the rawness of the character breaking through the page is when he is in the waiting room of the university’s counselling facility. Even then, my sympathy quickly turns into dislike and disappointment, as the situation escalates into cringe.
Of course, one of the sections of the form he's filling - among legit questions about wellness, how he sees himself and if he's thought about self-harm - is about his sex life. Yes, you read that right. And here what could have been a good narrative moment shifts towards the attention device number one of this novel: sex.
The story gets truly refreshing on one occasion only: when Connell and Marianne are apart. When Connell is away from Marianne's performative, upper-class masochism, he shines in a different light. He fails as a human and pushes past his failures into a realm of self-discovery and lucid development.
It is sad to conclude a review with bitterness and disappointment, so I will share what, for me, was the silver lining.
In the last pages of the novel: that’s where the two characters finally start owning their space. They start feeling like real people, and not just a stereotype of a flaw.
The last three chapters treasure most of the book's depth. It all unfolds there, with Connell's rising consciousness that he wants to be a writer and Marianne finally achieving blissful anonymity.
Don't expect to see yourself in these characters, whose lives and actions are mostly a travesty of the university student life you may know. Expect to see something else in Rooney's prose: a simplicity that is often synonymous with incommunicability.
Incommunicability: that, I would say, is the centre of the book. This single premise, that could have brewed mouthfuls of satisfaction, ultimately leaves a bland taste in the reader's mouth.