Source of book: Borrowed from the library
I had been intending to read some Sally Rooney, preferably Conversations With Friends, but it was made into a television series, which meant long waits for the book. This book, Normal People, was also made into a series, but that was earlier, and the rush had died down, so I went with this one. In an interesting twist, the earlier book was on the screen a few years after the later one. I decided to read this book as my vacation read for our recent week in San Diego.
In any case, I had heard good things about Rooney’s writing, both as writing and as a representative voice for a generation - Millennials - in a way that older writers could never be. I guess this makes me officially old now, as a Gen Xer, but whatever.
Whatever one makes of generational differences, the fact is that this is good writing by any standard. I was particularly reminded of Vonnegut because the language is mostly simple, understated, and yet packs an emotional punch and a depth of psychology that makes this story and its characters compelling.
The book follows two characters over the course of about five years, from the end of high school through college, and takes turns looking at the events through the eyes of each of the two. With the exception of backward-looking passages, most of the book is written in present tense, which is a bit disorienting at first until you get used to it, but it works in this case.
Rooney explores the class divide throughout the book, but also the respective emotional traumas that affect the pair.
Marianne comes from a well-off family, but one which is pretty troubled. Her late father was abusive, and hit both her and her mother. Her older brother appears to be a lot like his father, and, although his abuse of Marianne doesn’t get physical until the end, he is still a pretty nasty guy.
Connell, on the other hand, is solidly working class. In fact, his mother cleans Marianne’s family’s home as one of her jobs. His dad impregnated his mom when she was 17, and has never been in his life. So, we have a pair of missing fathers that loom over the story.
Marianne and Connell also know each other from school. He is a highly popular student, a soccer star, and one of the smartest kids at the school. Marianne, on the other hand, is socially awkward, and deeply unpopular. However, she too is highly intelligent, so it isn’t a complete surprise that the two of them end up attracted to each other.
Because of the gap in popularity and class, Connell asks Marianne to keep their relationship secret, which she does. However, when Connell asks another girl to the big school event, she feels betrayed and breaks it off.
They both end up attending college together, where the tables are turned. Marianne is more at home in the upper-class world, while Connell is unfairly kept on the outside due to his unfamiliarity with and inability to understand upper-class culture.
For the rest of the book, they remain drawn to each other, and try to reconnect several times. They also end up involved with other people from their own class: Connell with the seemingly fine but a bit boring Helen, and Marianne with the sadistic capitalist Jamie, the first of a series of cruel men she ends up with.
For Marianne, she finds that being abused is a sexual turn-on, presumably because of her own unresolved trauma; while Connell finds it appalling, and cannot bring himself to go that direction even at Marianne’s request during one of their reconnections. Connell, on the other hand, struggles to feel worthy of a true passionate love.
This isn’t really coming close to explaining this book, I’m afraid. So much of it takes place at the internal level, with a lot of complicated feelings. The ambiguous ending leaves one wondering what will end up happening to the two of them, even though it is difficult not to root for them choosing each other in the end.
One thing that really did strike me about the story is that it takes young love very seriously. There is a human tendency among older people to dismiss the feelings and attractions of the young as “just puppy love” and similar statements. And to be sure, not all early attachments last. But I know plenty of people who met their lifetime love very early, and there is nothing trivial or unimportant about that love. In fact, that would describe me and my wife. We were each other’s first love, and nearly 25 years after we first met, we still have something going on. It wasn’t trivial then, and it isn’t trivial now.
Furthermore, even attachments that do not last can be highly formative, and are for that reason alone of great importance. Rooney explores this idea with a lot of nuance and empathy. Whether or not Marianne and Connell end up together, they have profoundly affected each other not just physically but emotionally. Neither is the same as they would have been without each other.
I also want to mention that my belief that women generally write about sex better than men do has been given further confirmation. There is a decent bit of sex in the book, because sex is a crucial part of the relationships the characters have. It isn’t gratuitous, or particularly graphic - unless you consider the emotional intimacy to be graphic, and it sure is. The sex is complicated, to be sure. Much of it is good, and that is a nice thing to see. Connell is a good lover, in the best meaning of that term, and he and Marianne seem to be highly compatible at first. There is also some bad sex - uninspired, unsexy - and that is before you get to the somewhat disturbing sex between Marianne and Jamie. Rooney writes it really well in all cases, though. It isn’t a male-gaze perspective, but a raw and honest examination of the ways that emotions and sex interact, for good and bad.
Normal People was a good read, compelling and hard to put down, and satisfying for its depth.
While small passages cannot really do it justice, as the book succeeds best as a whole, I did note a few lines.
The first one reflects Connell’s thoughts after he first has sex with Marianne. His previous sexual experiences had been with girls who had then gone on to recount every detail to their friends, until the whole school knew the dirty details - including any disappointment he had been to his partners. Marianne, in contrast, was discreet, and, as Connell notes, “everything was between them only, even awkward or difficult things.”
For me, this is how sex should be. I never got airing all the laundry about it. I am certainly glad that my own great love has been like that - what we have is between us, and we both aim to never humiliate the other to friends or family. This is one of the beauties of what Connell and Marianne have, and if they do end up together, it would be a big reason why.
Although the details of the characters’ families are often withheld, we get small glimpses. How about this devastating bit regarding Marianne’s mother? After an incident with her brother, she withdraws into her usual coping method.
But it wouldn’t matter if she did tell her, not really. Denise decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression toward Marianne as a way of expressing themselves. As a child, Marianne resisted, but now she simply detached, as if it isn’t of any interest to her, which in a way it isn’t. Denise considers this a symptom of her daughter’s frigid and unloveable personality. She believes Marianne lacks “warmth,” by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.
This one hit home really hard. My own family situation has been difficult for many years, although it wasn’t abusive like Marianne’s family. However, I do have a narcissistic sibling, who has been problematic since childhood. Unfortunately, my inability (or refusal, take your pick) to beg this sibling for love on the impossible terms that narcissists demand did get me labeled as the “difficult” child, the one who was - as the book puts it - frigid and unloveable. One of the reasons I found my wife to be such a breath of fresh air was that she never brought this drama, these demands that could never be fulfilled. I was taught that women were just like that, and if I wanted to have a successful marriage, I needed to learn to take the shit better. What a relief to find out that wasn’t even remotely true.
I had a much more positive recognition in a passage about Connell. As a highly intelligent person, and one who is a reader, he found a good deal of solace in, among other authors, Jane Austen. He makes an astute observation:
It suggests to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.
This too has been my experience. Books require imagination, and imagination is necessary for understanding, empathy, and intimacy. At the most basic level, if you cannot use your imagination to put yourself in someone else’s place, how can you possibly make a connection?
This for me has been the great tragedy of fundamentalism: it is, at its core, a rejection of imagination. And thus, it creates a pathological lack of empathy, and kills the ability for true intimacy. This truth explains as well why those who read - particularly those who read good writing and a wide range - tend to be the most empathetic - and imaginative people I know. And the converse too: those who are most closed-minded, the most bigoted, the most unempathetic tend to be those who, if they read at all, read within a very narrow range. The worst are those who limit themselves to fundamentalist religious writings, but a similar phenomenon appears with those who read only genre fiction, particularly of a sort that features people like them. I think in some cases, I have seen increasing fundamentalism go hand in hand with an atrophy of reading - whether this is a chicken or egg situation is not clear. Maybe it is both.
Another delightful observation has to do with the interplay of communication and sex in a healthy relationship.
Knowing that they’ll probably have sex again before they sleep probably makes the talking more pleasurable, and he suspects that the intimacy of their discussions, often moving back and forth from the conceptual to the personal, also makes the sex feel better.
That has definitely been my experience. Intimacy feeds on intimacy, and there is nothing entirely like that combination of the physical and the emotional and the intellectual on earth.
While this transcends class differences, there is another passage which is really telling about the ways that class cannot entirely be ignored. Connell gets a job with some acquaintance of Marianne’s family while he is in college, and he knows that this is a perk of their relationship.
Rich people look out for each other, and being Marianne’s best friend and suspected sexual partner has elevated Connell to the status of rich-adjacent: someone for whom surprise birthday parties are thrown and cushy jobs are procured out of nowhere.
This also contains the seeds of how they end up breaking up, though. When the business goes bankrupt and he loses his job, he has to either move in with Marianne, or move back home for the summer. Connell cannot really bring himself to ask to move in - and Marianne is too clueless to understand his situation. She takes his move back home as a rejection of her, rather than his need to not ask for a handout from someone with more money than he has. This may be the most tragic moment in the book, this misunderstanding that isn’t ever entirely cleared up.
Every bit as heartrending is the episode in Sweden with Lukas, a photographer who has a sexual relationship with Marianne over a winter, before she finally realizes she is just expressing her self-hatred. The description of Lukas is pretty chilling:
This quality of discernment, she has realized, does not make Lukas a good person. He has managed to nurture a fine artistic sensitivity without ever developing any real sense of right and wrong. The fact that this is even possible unsettles Marianne, and makes art seem pointless suddenly.
I should at least note in Lukas’ defense that he does the right thing and deletes the risque photos of Marianne at her request, so perhaps he isn’t as morally void as she things - or maybe he grows in a positive way. (This is more than another character - see below - is able to do.)
The winter with Lukas is complicated for a number of reasons. She is on the rebound from a bad breakup with Jamie, for one thing. But for another, she has finally decided to avoid going home for the holidays. This was another thing that really resonated for me. I’ll go ahead and quote the entire passage.
She’s decided not to go home for Christmas this year. She thinks a lot about how to extricate herself from “the family situation.” In bed at night she imagines scenarios in which she is completely free of her mother and brother, on neither good nor bad terms with them, simply a neutral nonparticipant in their lives. She spent much of her childhood and adolescence planning elaborate schemes to remove herself from family conflict: staying completely silent, keeping her face and body expressionless and immobile, wordlessly leaving the room and making her way to the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind her. Locking herself in the toilet. Leaving the house for an indefinite number of hours and sitting in the school car park by herself. None of these strategies had ever proven successful. In fact her tactics only seemed to increase the possibility that she would be punished as the primary instigator. Now she can see that her attempt to avoid a family Christmas, always a peak occasion for hostilities, will be entered into the domestic accounting book as yet another example of offensive behavior on her part.
Yes to every bit of this.
About 7 or so years ago, we stopped attending family holidays, after one particularly horrid Thanksgiving, in which it was very much a “peak occasion for hostilities,” the increasingly unendurable open season on criticism and disapproval of my wife by my mother and sister. It was after that that my wife decided she would never be part of another holiday gathering, and was prepared to spend it with friends instead. But looking back, this was an even more longstanding pattern, and I did some of the same things that Marianne did to try to cope. But nothing “worked” in the sense of making things better. That’s why we cut bait and moved on. And that choice has definitely been entered in the family ledger as an example of why I am the bad child.
I mentioned above that there was a character who is unable to find redemption, and that is the minor character of Rob. We meet him early on, when he is showing nude pictures of his girlfriend to other guys without her consent. And hitting on and sexually assaulting Marianne. So, he is not a particularly good guy.
But he next appears when his body is found in the river - a suicide. His funeral turns out to be the event that leads to Helen dumping Connell, but also the chance for some consideration of the tragedy of Rob. Why did he do what he did? It wasn’t as simple as “he’s a bad guy.”
Nothing had meant more to Rob than the approval of others; to be thought well of, to be a person of status. He would have betrayed any confidence, any kindness, for the promise of social acceptance.
Connell knows that he himself has behaved this way - that was his first break with Marianne, after all: his concern about his status, which turned out not to matter in the end. Marianne later has her own analysis.
He was also a very insecure person, obsessed with popularity, and his desperation had made him cruel. Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.
This line has been in my head ever since I read it. It is so true. A desperate desire for acceptance - for popularity and status - makes you cruel. (See: Trump, Donald, for the most public example.) And once you cross that line and intentionally hurt vulnerable others, you learn something about yourself. And that something is too ugly to really acknowledge, so it gets covered with layers of defenses and justifications. (In my opinion, this is one reason that fundamentalism attracts so many bullies: it provides endless justification for bullying - and opportunities.)
There is one final line I want to mention. Marianne is in many ways an idealist. She wants to make the world a better place. But as she realizes eventually, her power is limited. This is a hard pill to swallow, but it is true. We have to simultaneously understand the truth of it, while never losing our willingness to do what we can anyway.
Marianne wanted her life to mean something then, she wanted to stop all violence committed by the strong against the weak, and she remembered a time several years ago when she had felt so intelligent and powerful that she almost could have achieved such a thing, and now she knows that she wasn’t at all powerful, and she would live and die in a world of extreme violence against the innocent, and at most she could help only a few people. It was so much harder to reconcile herself to the idea of helping a few, like she would rather help no one than do something so small and feeble, but that wasn’t it either.
How much can someone like me do to stop the powerful from preying on the weak innocents? Not that much. But I still have to try to do what I can. And, as history has shown, millions of those small actions by millions of people make a difference, particularly in the long run.
This book is bittersweet in a lot of ways, not just in that existential sense. You want a happy ending, but the ambiguous one we get is more realistic and arguably more satisfying. Will Connell and Marianne ever be able to be lovers in a healthy way? Who knows? Maybe? But they are and will be friends, and have each others’ backs like they always have. And maybe that is enough. Or maybe it was always the most important thing. The ending really sealed the deal on the book for me. It is really great writing, the kind that sticks with you, and the kind that leaves the same ache that any real experience of the bittersweetness of life itself gives.
A final word about the book. The title references a recurring theme: Connell and Marianne yearn to be “normal people” - that is, like they think other people are. But as the book unfolds, it becomes obvious both that Connell and Marianne are better, deeper people than many of those around them; and that nobody is really “normal” the way they think others are. We are all that same combination of strengths and flaws and messiness - “normal people” do not exist, except in our imaginations. Acceptance of ourselves and others really boils down to that truth.