I’ve not yet read Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends but after reading her new novel, Normal People, it is on the top of my birthday list for next month. I read Normal People in three days, if that. I don’t remember the last time I not only loved a book this much, but that I savoured it. I kept stopping myself to put off finishing a section or a chapter because the book is small and even just a few chapters in, I didn’t want it to end.
Now, I say I don’t remember the last time I loved a book this much, but of course I do. I read Nell Fredenberger’s two novels this month and also The Uncoupling by Meg Woltizer, and I loved them all. But there was just something so personal and raw about Rooney’s book, I can still even feel the way the cover felt while I was reading it, that made the entire experience different.
The book is set in Ireland, in the small fictitious town of Carricklea where everyone knows each other’s business. Our two protagonists, Marianne and Connell go to school together but never talk. Marianne barely speaks to anyone, would rather read her novel at lunch and tell herself that she doesn’t care most people hate her because she’s smarter and more special than everyone. Connell, on the other hand, while not as rich as Marianne, is popular and happy at school. Life at home is also better, he lives with a loving mother while Marianne’s brother and mother are physically and emotionally abusive. The connection between the two is that Connell’s mother cleans house for Marianne’s mom. It is during these hours after school when he picks up his mother from Marianne’s house that the two begin their relationship.
And what a relationship! I was prepared for Ross and Rachael-esque drama but that isn’t the case. Without giving too much away, these two are always in each other’s lives. The first and foremost way to define their status is as best friends. There is rarely drama or fighting, there is often sex but most of all talking. Even when they are with other people, they are always thinking of each other first. When Connell is traveling with other friends later on in the book, without his steady girlfriend at the time, Helen or Marianne, it is only Marianne he thinks to buy a present for. Very early on you stop worrying about whether or not they are ‘together together’ because their relationship is so much more.
The bigger question, something I struggled with during the middle of the novel when the characters have both moved away to Trinity College for university, was whether they were good for each other. Both Marianne and Connell struggle with anxiety and mental illness and at times it was tricky to see if they helped or hurt one another. By the end, when major sacrifices are made and we see the couple rooted in love, they are redeemed. That was when it got harder and harder to turn the pages because I really didn’t want to say goodbye.
Rooney’s writing is sharp and political and it pours effortlessly onto the page. I was dropped into their world from the start and the mixture of friendship and love and pain was beautiful and overwhelming and at times claustrophobic. Even with two pages left I didn’t know how things would go or even what I was hoping for – all I knew was that the last line was exactly right.