Normal People by Sally Rooney
Overview: Connell and Marianne have always weaved in and out of each other's lives. Having a close relationship but never being an official couples has led to plenty of turmoil and awkward situations as they try to form a tentative friendship as they navigate university in Dublin. Even though they date other people and never seem to be able to fully commit to each other, there's something unshakable about their bond. And over months and years we watch them drift apart and back together, like a gently rolling ocean wave. Overall: 4
Mixed Feelings Doesn't Even Start To Explain How I Feel About This Book
Characters: 3 I don't even know how to start talking about the people in this book. These characters baffle me. The book is incredibly passive in its approach to just about everything, and that's mostly lead by the characters. Connell and Marianne can't have a straightforward conversation to save their lives, and that leads to constant misunderstandings and misinterpretations. And I'm just sitting there wondering how you have this incredible, deep, passionate bond with someone and not be able to have a conversation about being official with them or moving into their flat for the summer, or what's going on in your head at all. I understand that characters in books have chronically bad communication skills to makes plots function, but this was just infuriating. It made it harder to believe they were just made for each other.
It's hard to judge the characters themselves because the book spans over something like 3 years, so they evolve and change and switch rolls in their relationships a lot, but Connell was almost dead to me from the start because of how he treated Marianne when they were in high school and she was the laughing stock for no reason. It deeply bothered me how he was so happy to have sex with her, but he was terrified of anyone at school finding out when, in reality, they absolutely would not care (which even got proven later). The way he treated her when she obviously cared deeply for him and was in a super vulnerable place without a support system bothered me in a way I couldn't shake. When the roles reverse and suddenly she's more popular at university, she doesn't ever inflict the same sense of shame on him. Connell has a good, supportive family in his mother and even when he doesn't fit in in Dublin, he does manage to find a solid best friend (named Niall, and yes, I pictured Niall Horan the whole time) and a community through Marianne. Where he ends up in the book is almost entirely created by Marianne nudging him closer to an authentic version of himself in a way he shied away from in high school because of his fears of what his peers would think of him. What frustrated me about his arc is that Marianne enables all of these things to happen, but she doesn't get the same level out of that partnership.
Marianne is definitely the character I identified with most at the start of the book, but she completely lost herself by the very end and was just completely depleted by bad relationships with men, with her family, with the whole world almost. And it just kept passively happening to her. I feel like Connell learns who he is and Marianne gets diluted out until she turns into a ghost.
It almost fits with the major manic pixie dream girl vibes that her character gives off from the very start of the book. She's the outcast, she's weird, no one understands her, she lives in a mansion far away with a bad family, but Connell sees how special she is beyond all the stigma around her. And she's going to change his life. And if I'm being honest, I've always had a soft spot from manic pixie dream girls. Before I knew all the theories and dark realities behind the trope, I related to these characters most. I loved the idea that all the flaws could make me sparkle that came from a deeply insecure place, and the book glorifies this.
Even when Marianne becomes the popular one in college, she's still constantly injured by individuals and society. Everyone was always telling Marianne to get help with such vitriol and an implication that when she stood up for herself, she was mentally unwell, but she would've benefitted so much from help and probably would've gotten it if she hadn't been gaslit so much. Her unresolved trauma manifested in completely unhealthy ways in her relationships. There were so many times where I found myself whispering, "Marianne, no". And it just made me mad that this whole perfect for each other, missed connection story was built on a relationship that only ever really benefitted the guy and was controlled mostly by what he wanted. I never found it particularly romantic, though I think it could give people a pretty toxic idea of what love is.
Plot: 4 I love books that span over years, so this suited me quite nicely. It's very much an interwoven plot situation where each chapter not only includes what's happening in the present moment but jumping back to whatever the scene it was that caused the tension of the present moment, so we're always going forward and back through time in each chapter from either Marianne and Connell's points of view.
Just like the characters are extremely passive, so is the plot. Things kind of happen sometimes. Which, I'm fan #1 of plotless books (like Mary HK Choi's books), but this is different. In Mary's books, when nothing happens, you're accounting for every crumb on the kitchen counter, every tiny emotional flash and micro expression. Here, nothing is happening and we're not seeing things on a micro level either. This book made me feel like I was on a moving train with dirty windows craning my neck to see what's happening in the distance. I felt so so removed from everything that was happening. Maybe it was the distant third person or maybe it was something about the telling type lens it comes through, but I felt constantly removed.
But, at the same time, I couldn't put the book down. I read sitting at the counter, on the couch, during class (sorry). It's taken me weeks to finish most books that I've read this semester, but I flew through this book in three days. The plot didn't move at all, I had lots of hang ups with the characters, but I didn't ever want to stop. I don't know what magic is in this book, but something about it was so compelling even though I kept asking myself "do I even like this at all" constantly.
Writing: 4 I have so many thoughts about the writing, I don't even know where to start. I guess, the first warning I'll give is that there are no quotation marks or anything to differentiate the dialogue. It really threw me off at the beginning, and the book also starts in a really abrupt way, so it's disorienting. You have to get past the first chapter to figure out what's going on. Eventually, it does get better and you do melt into the story. Also, the writing style constantly made me feel like I was reading a book for school. Everything is extremely formal, and people talk to each other in a super stuffy, formal way that didn't resonate at all even though the book was about college students in the 2010s. There were also a lot of questionable statements in the book that really turned me off of it. It made me realize the fundamental difference between YA and adult, more than anything on the surface, is the responsibility to the reader. In YA you have to at least imply that a character's toxic mindset isn't health. There's some kind of audience awareness. This book is so full of toxic ideas and comments and triggers that sometimes popped up in ways that felt insensitive and unnecessary and were never talked about, thought about, or contextualized at all.
There's something about Rooney's writing that draws you in. I get why she's successful, even if I still can't tell you if I like it. And I'll probably read Conversations with Friends when my library hold comes in. I've seen Taylor Swift recommend her books, and I finally picked it up after hearing Conan Gray gush about the book in multiple interviews. It just maybe doesn't feel like this revolutionary thing that everyone talks about it as.
SPOILER: I didn't see the ending coming. I assumed they'd just end up together. And then they didn't, which delivered on my absolute favorite trope. I love people who make huge, positive impacts on people's lives but there's no happily ever after. But I hate how unequally that change was distributed, and I'm also so irritated that he gets a fancy MFA program and she gets... nothing? I understand that's life, but I'm so tired of the world working that way that it sort of dulled my enthusiasm for the ending. I just wish there was more. More urgency, more character development, more payoff, more depth of their relationship. I wanted to break the dirty glass window between me and the story, and that just never happened.
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