“Love is a Losing Game”, Amy Winehouse sang with a deep, melancholic voice in 2006. Relationships rarely concern the two lovers only. The seed of a love story is often fertilized, poisoned, influenced by external conditions, such as water, wind, sun, which determine the life or death of a plant. The book Normal People is the tale of a love story, yet is very far from being a pure romantic narrative.
Connell and Marianne’s story, that of two Irish millennials who grew up in the provincial county of Sligo, is a seed that grows conditioned by two variables: a social class difference and the search for an intuitive, desired, but never achieved normality. The normal people of Sally Rooney’s novel title are what Connell and Marianne can never be. Although the two characters grow and change, traces of this difference are visible throughout the whole book.
A love story
In 2011, Connell and Marianne were both sixteen years old and students at the same high school in Sligo. However, one – Connell – is the son of a single, hardworking mother, a clever yet popular boy, who does well in school and at soccer. He’s sensitive and discreet.
The other – Marianne – lives in a villa with a dysfunctional family, and is very rich and intelligent. Others see her cleverness as an anomaly, the equivalent of the stain stitched on the chest in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. When and where can planets, as far apart as they are, actually collide? In Marianne’s kitchen, where Connell’s mother works as a housekeeper, is just part of the answer. In the kitchen, the love story begins, with short lines of dialogue that are, for both of them, a revelation.
What unites them is just as strong as that which separates them, and the plot of their relationship, which began in Sligo, unfolds throughout their years at university (Trinity college, in Dublin), between Erasmus, summer jobs, and affairs with other people.
They have other experiences, seeking pain or suffering from them – suffering, like depression, is also present in Rooney’s first novel Conversation with Friends – and yet they never stop searching for each other. Every encounter between Connell and Marianne brings their relationship and even the awareness they have of themselves further forward, thanks to brilliant and explosive dialogues.
An immersive experience
The peculiarity of Sally Rooney’s writing is that she masters the experience of reading as if it were an immersive experience. The reader sees what happens in Marianne’s and Connell’s head almost simultaneously. He (or she) experiences joy when Marianne and Connell reunite, or frustration every time the protagonists refuse to indulge in the love they have for each other. The book Normal People is not a consolatory novel.
It is a lucid reflection – in two voices – on the hard-edged corners of sentimental bows. Rooney is great at raising up Marianne and Connell without depriving them of what they picked up – or lost – along the way. They do what everyone does: they try to get out of the tangled brambles of life without forgetting their emotional integrity.
In 2020, BBC and Hulu released the TV series of the same title.