The Socialism Network

Normal People: A Novel BY Sally Rooney. Hogarth. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.

The cover of Normal People: A Novel

Sally Rooney. Sally Rooney! Sally Rooney, the twenty-eight-year-old Irish novelist celebrated as the “first great millennial author,” is interested in weird relationships, or relationships that seem weird but are quietly common within the young, educated, and progressive milieu she depicts. Her debut, 2017’s Conversations with Friends, concerns a nonmonogamous not-quite-affair between Frances, a twenty-one-year-old student/budding writer, and Nick, a sexy, depressed actor in his thirties; judging, resenting, and flirting from the edges of this initially secret romance are his wife, Melissa, and Bobbi, Frances’s dazzling best friend and former girlfriend. This year’s Normal People (Hogarth, $26), which was long-listed for the Booker Prize, follows Marianne and Connell, an on-again, off-again couple, from their final year of high school (in the country) through the end of their university years (in Dublin). Though it’s clear they love each other, what’s going on with them—their friends frequently want to know—is contingent on pride, their immature senses of what their relationship should be, and good old-fashioned miscommunication.

Rooney writes in a way that satisfies the literary Goldilocks: Her books are plotted but not too plotted, stylish but not too stylish, political but not too political, modern but not too modern. The novels are love stories but not too much so, mostly because their endings are nontraditionally happy, on the good side of what a woman recounting her romantic situation to a friend might call “complicated.” What makes the works representatively millennial is not just the way Rooney’s characters communicate (electronically and with a qualified, almost defensive irony); it’s also that the author herself seems representatively representational: A painstaking awareness of class and gender dynamics guides her characters’ inner lives as well as how they interact. “I don’t really believe in the idea of the individual,” Rooney told the New York Times last year—a very millennial thing to say. “I find myself consistently drawn to writing about intimacy, and the way we construct one another.”

Sally Rooney, 2017.
Sally Rooney, 2017.

Her characters are charming and intelligent enough, but what sticks out about them is their circumstances, which Rooney mines to produce individual personalities and social expectations; they do not seem real so much as realistic, identifiable, relatable. The first sentence of Normal People— “Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell”—establishes the power dynamic of their relationship on two levels. The first is that his single mother is her family’s maid, and he is coming to pick her up from work in their shared car. The second is that Marianne will always come when Connell calls. In school, both are “smart”—which of them is smarter is a recurring topic in their banter—but she is a sassy loser with no friends, “an object of disgust” who neither wears makeup nor shaves her legs, while he is, despite his shyness, a popular soccer player. None of their classmates know they’re friendly after school, and when they begin sleeping together, he makes her promise not to tell anyone.

Despite the cruelty of Connell’s request—for which he is scolded by his saintly mother—Marianne complies; we come to understand that her submissiveness, which extends to her sex life, is a legacy of her abusive family, who are as awful as Connell’s mother is lovely. (Both main characters are fatherless: Hers died; his has been kept a secret.) Their romance develops—she encourages him to apply to Trinity College Dublin rather than settle for university in Galway like his friends—and when she tells him about her family, it feels like the “beginning of [her] life”; previously, she’d “had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it.” He tells her he loves her and will never hurt her, and then he asks a mean girl to a dance. Marianne is so upset that she leaves school and stops speaking to him for the rest of the term.

Once they’re at university, the situation flips: Marianne is suddenly cool and in demand socially, her mild cynicism and worldliness having found an environment where they’re appreciated; Connell relies on the kindness of rich kids for party invites. They begin sleeping together again, for a while, and the rest of the narrative charts the issues raised by the asymmetrical aspects of their relationship. But even when they hurt each other, the result is oddly harmonious; every advantage in a character’s life is balanced with a disadvantage, such that Connell and Marianne end up “like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions” or “like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both.”

Rooney is a “lifelong Marxist,” but in both of her novels a character’s relative money problems are solved, or at least eased, by convenient contrivances. Connell’s discomfort with his working-class roots does have consequences for the couple, but his issues more or less vanish about halfway through the novel, when both he and Marianne are awarded large scholarships. It’s less a plot device or source of tension than an opportunity for Rooney to make a point. For Marianne, the money is merely “a happy confirmation of what she has always believed about herself anyway: that she’s special,” but for Connell it is “the substance that makes the world real,” that allows him to travel and to think about stuff besides rent. Luckily, they’re both smart and reasonable enough not to resent each other for the imbalance. “I guess we’re from very different backgrounds, class-wise,” Connell says when they get the news of their windfalls. “I don’t think about it much,” Marianne replies, before quickly adding: “Sorry, that’s an ignorant thing to say. Maybe I should think about it more.”

I didn’t appreciate the voice and humor of Rooney’s debut until I read Normal People, which is so even-toned that it’s not disturbing. Conversations with Friends likewise features an attempt to straighten out a “power disparity,” but because the debut is narrated in the first person, the effect is less forced; appropriately, most of the effort to balance power takes place on the level of conversation, rather than within the novel’s structure. “I couldn’t decide if I had complete control over you or no control at all,” Frances, who is definitively smarter but also poorer than her older boyfriend, tells him. When he asks what she settled on, she says complete control; his reply is that “He thought it was healthy for us to try and correct the power disparity, though he added that he didn’t think we would ever be able to do it completely.” When she tells him his wife has called him “pathologically submissive,” he points out that “helplessness was often a way of exercising power.”

Though sex is something all Rooney’s characters think, talk, and worry about, descriptions of the act in both novels are mainly notable for how not-embarrassing the writing is; they don’t necessarily dramatize the power imbalances between the characters, which are made explicit elsewhere. Marianne’s submissiveness in bed is fraught, the subject of campus rumor, and directly linked to her abusive upbringing, minor eating disorder, and self-loathing; she tells other people about it with the confidence of someone who is confident in little except her relative superiority. Most of the time, that’s all she really needs, though her intelligence occasionally does her more harm than good. “Feeling worldly,” she tells a jerk boyfriend, “You know, I like guys to hurt me.” At which point he does, and she hates herself for it, which only makes her want it more. Meanwhile she muses dismissively of Connell, who is “wholesome like a big baby tooth” and now awkwardly in the friend zone: “Probably never in his life has he thought about inflicting pain on someone for sexual purposes.” Their sex, when they’re in a romantic phase, is good, but she’s right—he eventually refuses to hit her when she asks, which destabilizes her: He’s denying her the power in helplessness she seems to want, the ability to control her circumstances by intentionally relinquishing control.

In Rooney’s novels, writing is a way for the lower-class characters to establish agency and selfhood; if you can’t control the world, or other people’s impressions of you, you can approach control over your work. Early on, Connell, who is “moved” by literature, attempts to interpret Marianne like a character in a book, transforming her into something he can study and coolly analyze:

Multiple times he has tried writing his thoughts about Marianne down on paper in an effort to make sense of them . . . long run-on sentences with too many dependent clauses, sometimes connected with breathless semicolons, as if he wants to recreate a precise copy of Marianne in print, as if he can preserve her completely for future review. Then he turns a new page in the notebook so he doesn’t have to look at what he’s done.

Rooney doesn’t write like this now, with lots of clauses, as if overcome by emotion; she writes as if emotions are phenomena to be observed, if not external then at least not fully attached to the person experiencing them. (She has this in common with Tao Lin.) At university, Rooney was a champion debater—ranked first in Europe—and in an essay about the experience she expressed her horror at being described as “passionate.” She wanted to be “aloof and cerebral.” In her novels, it seems she’s advocating a balance she hasn’t yet achieved; the unwavering neatness of her books leads to pat lessons and characters totally lacking in mystery. Both her writer protagonists—Frances and Connell—enjoy success only after they learn to be vulnerable in their relationships, but formally, Rooney ends up enacting the kind of control over the text that its content argues against. What I mean by this is that the ending of Normal People is really cheesy. Eventually Connell’s writing improves, and he’s accepted to a creative-writing MFA program in New York. While it means they’ll have to be apart and maybe break up, Marianne encourages him to go, content in knowing that each of them has given the other something in their lives. It’s so reasonable it’s almost absurd, though NYU acceptance as happy ending is very millennial.

Lauren Oyler is a writer based in New York.