Critics’ Corner: Book Review

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Critics Corner: Book Review

Sara Harris, Freshmen, Staff Reporter

While a good book allows the reader to escape their reality, the best books change their views of their reality. As an avid reader, finding such books can be challenging, however, I recently picked up a novel that changed the way I see the world. The book Normal People, by Sally Rooney, was painfully real, raw, and an emotional roller coaster that one never fully recovers from. The characters themselves were flawed, and damaged beyond repair, to the point where rooting for them felt like a lost cause. This read wasn’t quite pleasant by any means, as it leaves the reader frustrated, angry, but most of all, sad. Normal People isn’t a book I would necessarily recommend to the masses, in fact, I would most likely have told my past self to wait and read this as an adult. However, the emotions I felt while reading this novel are second to none. This novel isn’t about Harry meeting Sally. It’s not uplifting, or hopeful, or really even enjoyable. Normal People is the book you read at 2 a.m so that those around you can’t hear your muffled cries and frustrated tears, as the characters you so desperately want to root for make it harder with every page. So although this book didn’t allow me to truly escape, it did change my views for both the better and the worst, making this novel the most impactful one I have ever read. 

In the novel Normal People, Marianne and Connell share a raw, and emotional connection that surpasses the common romances found in novels. Although it could be classified as a romance novel and has romantic elements throughout, the book itself is anything but. Marianne, a member of Ireland’s upper class, has wealth and riches, but her home life is lacking in a type of comfort money can’t offer, as I doubt any currency can afford love. Connell, who attends school with Marianne is in almost the opposite situation, as he and his mother are part of the working class. Although one can say they met by virtue of Connell’s mother cleaning Marianne’s house, entering the casual relationship in their teenage years was entirely their decision. The connection between the two highlighted their flaws, to the point where the relationship became toxic. Their dependency on one another derailed their decisions, and although their lack of communication did hinder the relationship at times, a bond as strong as theirs is not easily broken. Throughout this novel I found myself wishing for interconnection as strong as theirs, romantic or not, in which a person could truly understand my thought process without requiring the words used to explain it. However, Marianne and Connell, depend on the understanding of one another instead of communication, which leads to many misunderstandings. 

Many readers may find themselves caught up in the romantic endeavors of Marianne and Connell, but I only ever saw their relationship as a cloak, hiding the underlying messages of the novel. Marianne’s wealth and Connell’s poverty provide an invisible barrier between the two. This division between them is subtle, but the line between their social classes is clearly drawn, the author speaking true to her culture and how they define class. Throughout Normal People, I soon began to realize that although Marianne was the wealthier of the two, she was also the most damaged. Her expansive mansion may have brought some level of comfort, but her emotionally, and physically abusive family used their wealth to imprison her. For Connell, his home life is nurturing. His mother offers him comfort in ways money can’t buy, and for most of the novel, I found myself pitying Marianne more than Connell, despite her extensive riches. As someone who once did believe that wealth could create a level of happiness, reading this book made me realize that those with money may be the most trapped of all.   

Connell and Marianne originally meet as young teens in high school, but the latter half of the novel takes place in college. The concept of college and its importance is stressed within the novel. Marianne and Connell, unlike their classmates, are exceptionally smart, both winning scholarships and awards as the book goes on. Connell is originally very popular in his class, despite his shy behavior. Marianne is a social outcast, both at home and in school. Once college begins, with both teens attending the same school, their respective social statuses change; Marrianne becomes increasingly popular on campus, whereas shy Connell feels more and more detached. He finds it hard to connect with his college classmates, their wealth and money still driving a division between himself and the rest of the world. Living in a small town, as Marrianne and Connell do at the beginning of the novel, is something I can highly relate to, leaving part of me curious as to how being surrounded by people from different parts of the world could influence me in new ways. Breaking out of the “bubble” a place such as Westchester offers is scary, and many may experience self-doubt. Rooney cleverly depicts the nervous energy of teens becoming adults, and the evolution within themselves, as shy teens develop into capable adults. In Normal People, many of the individuals peaked in high school, those years being the best of their life, while others, mainly Marianne and Connell, left their classmates behind in the race we call life. I often wonder if I will be like Marianne, and adapt to my newfound independence in a positive way, or if I will plummet.  

Relationships within novels can often be portrayed as idealized and unproblematic, however, that is not the case with Normal People. The novel is humanizing, making the characters feel like more than words on a page. This can feel exhausting at times, although I suspect the author wanted her readers to react this way. I completed the book the same night I started it, and I found myself feeling as if I had just finished a triathlon; both exhausted and shocked that I had finally crossed the finish line. The following night I re-read the book, feeling unsatisfied from the ending, but once I read it again I began to see that Marianne and Connell’s relationship wasn’t the true focus of the novel. Through their toxicity and poor decisions, I observed their lack of communication. Almost every time their relationship ended, it was due to this alone, making me both frustrated and sad for them. Observing the inner workings of what I presume to be quite a messy, adult relationship, my understanding of the importance of conversing with those you love developed. I soon began to see that in order for a relationship to truly work, in contempt of understanding, communication is vital.

Love is a concept that I always found to be interesting, yet unattainable. The characters I would read about that were so deeply in love felt artificial, making love feel like this beautiful idea that could never truly be achieved by those off of a page. I believed in that idea for a while, in truth I was most likely in denial. I thought it would be easier to refuse love existed, than wish for the feeling, but never attain it. Connell and Marianne were deeply in love, to the point where it acted as a poison, plaguing both themselves and their relationship. For most of the novel, I was jealous of their relationship, wishing for one similar to theirs. I still do, however, I also believe that the novel didn’t portray an accurate and healthy way to deal with struggles surrounding a romantic or platonic relationship, so although it did illustrate common misconceptions about love, there were still elements that felt unrealistic. . This alone may have been the most excruciatingly painful aspect of Normal People, as readers witness what could have been beautiful love, slowly turn sour, characters letting their own ignorance and stupidity cloud their judgment. To watch those blessed with this beautiful, raw, thing let it go to waste was truly disheartening. I believed before reading this novel that love similar to those in novels was unattainable, and after reading this novel I’m curious as to if that is a good thing. These passions we read about, these romance books, they are fabricated; fictitious. In those pages, the main focus is that relationship, with little else in the storyline. So of course readers will only read about the characters’ love for one another, that is the main focus. However, I don’t want my life to only be about the relationships I have with others, I want my life to be weighted in my achievements, and most importantly happiness. After reading Normal People, I no longer believe love portrayed in novels is something to live for or even strive for. I believe that love, held in our world will always be messier than that on a page, and more painful than any book. This emotion, this feeling that so few truly encounter is meant to be real. The passions felt between Marrianne and Connell are second to none in any literature I have ever read, yet the cost of their love was extensive and truly sad. Reading this novel, one might believe that love, although rare and beautiful, may also come with its own price tag.  

Reading Normal People, I felt more emotions in those five hours than in most of my life. I didn’t necessarily relate with Connell or Marianne, but I did empathize with them, their pain being my pain, their sadness being mine. Much of the novel was filled with frustration, and hopelessness that is unmatched by any book I have ever read. In the back of my mind, although I tried to deny it, I knew how it would end. However, when it did finally come to that last page, those final words, I was unprepared, despite knowing in a way it would finish as it did. Normal People was a read I will never forget, nor would I want to. I grieved with the characters from their losses and was overjoyed by their accomplishments. However, in the end, I felt saddened. Sad for the characters who were corrupted by the adversities of life, sad for me and how I felt during the novel, but above all I felt most sadness and anguish for the world in which we live. In hindsight, I do understand that growth is necessary in our ever-changing world, however, in many cases leaving behind those that we love in the process, can hurt the most. Connell and Marianne grow together, and separately throughout the novel, but as Marianne says, their love was like a gift, never truly taken away. I did cry from this novel, something I haven’t done since third grade after reading Shiloh, and I think that for me personally, no matter how it did end, or begin, the novel itself was sad; filled with poignancy hard to relay through words. Rooney meant for the book to inflict sorrow, and reading it as I did, I felt that and much more. Normal People is driven by the characters and their unique connection with one another, however, it was also a novel based on feelings, the characters, and your own. I felt anger towards the characters and their ignorance, but I also was able to see the world through their eyes. This constant push and pull, between understanding and anger, would leave any reader exhausted. When asked the question, “What did Normal people make you feel?”, I can simply offer no real answer. The rollercoaster of emotions thrown my way was overwhelming, and I simply couldn’t seem to slow down the pace at which I was feeling them. The one feeling I can easily place is sadness, and I doubt any book, whether it be as tragic as Romeo and Juliet, will outdo the heartache this novel caused. 

Hope is a funny thing. Too much, and it can turn into desperation, but too little will leave one feeling discouraged. I hope for many accomplishments in life, despite knowing that many may never occur. If I lost this hope, would I be as driven? Would I feel the same need to succeed? Reading Normal People, I found myself hoping for much of what Connell and Marianne had. No sooner did I realize that these perceived “hopes” were nothing more than empty wishes, ones that may never happen. The entire concept of this novel is meant to make the reader hopeless for the characters, and in many ways I did. Connell and Marianne were not easy characters to root for, nor did I enjoy many aspects of the novel, or the ideals portrayed within them. Normal People is a novel meant to examine the relationship between two characters throughout a prolonged period of time. Their time apart, and their time together is evaluated, both characters constantly changing from shy nervous teens, to more fully developed, adult characters. As the book went on they felt less and less like words on a page, and more like multifaceted, real people, who exemplify the flaws within our human nature. Although the book did make me sad, Normal People left me most hopeful for the characters themselves, and how they would flourish and grow, outside the novel. 

When reading a book, one tends to focus most on the end than on any other aspect. Reading Normal People, a book that focuses less on the end, and more on the journey, is difficult for any reader, including me. Once I had finished reading the novel that first time, I cried. I was disappointed and simply unsatisfied with the ending. I then read it again, and once again cried, but not for the same reason. A bond as raw, and beautiful as theirs will never truly be severed, and we as readers witness this throughout the novel. Normal People is a book that focuses on the growth of the characters, and follows a specific timeline, only showing pivotal points in each Marianne and Connell’s life. As a reader, when a book ends, when the very last page appears, and the very last sentence is read, one thinks that that’s the end. For many cases, especially fantasies, where the world is once again saved, and the antagonist is finally defeated, the end is a fitting word to describe that last line. However, in Normal People, where the novel is cut off at an arbitrary time, there simply is no end. You may be finished with the novel, but these characters’ lives do not end. So when I cried that second time, I didn’t cry because of how it ended, I found myself sobbing because I didn’t get to see the next time point in their relationship. It didn’t necessarily feel unfinished because the funny thing about life, and about this novel, is that one never fully finishes it. Life goes on, with or without you, and these characters’ stories continue, even if they may never get written on a page. Normal People, despite the damaged characters, is truly an exceptional read, and one that has simply changed my life. I hated much of the novel, at times I truly despised both Marianne and Connell, so for those that can simply not stand a book in which the characters are truly disconcerting, I would strongly advise not reading this book. However, these frustrations felt while reading the novel are necessary, and in the end, make for a better read. Normal People had the audacity to enter my life, alter it completely, and simply leave. Whether I should be angry or thankful, I have little a clue, but I will say that Marianne and Connell changed the way I see the world, and it seems only Salley Rooney could have pulled it off. Give it thought, and when ready and abled, pick up Normal People, and prepare for a life-altering experience.