Normal People by Sally Rooney

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.


Today


Today is a low day. Yesterday, just outside of William’s school, a car jumped far over the curb and struck a women my age and she died. I am quite sure from her photos in the paper that I knew her from the library. She was just walking down the street on a sunny day. It’s beyond horrible.

I had coffee this morning with a good friend and then took Bingo for a long walk. I listened to a podcast I’d never listened to before. It is called Committed and it was perfect. The podcast is about marriage and the millions of things that it can be. This episode was about a couple who’s five month old daughter had been diagnosed with cancer. Six months later – six long, impossible months later – she was fine. The couple tells their story and talks about how it could have broken them but it didn’t and see it as their second chance as a family and how incredible that is for them. Needless the say I was happy to be wearing a baseball hat and large sunglasses while I walked and cried.

So it’s been a day of thinking of what matters, and not just does it matter that I read far more than I clean. Just this weekend Scott and I were talking about how much time we spend with our children because they need us. We talked about trying to live more in the moment and relish this. Our kids may not be as independent as other 11 and almost 14 years olds are and that’s fine. They love us so much and they appreciate and thank us for helping them and for loving them so much back. It’s pretty fierce this love in our house sometimes and not that is isn’t in yours, of course it is. but in our house we spend hours and hours today, sometime not doing much. Often time is spent just getting through the minutes because things are hard. But instead of wishing this wasn’t the case, wishing we could have more time to ourselves, we try to hold on (to each other as well) and enjoy it. Our kids are so funny and wonderful to be with. We are such a strong unit and we know things will change one day, that our kids will get older, learn more coping skills and will want to be on their own, and when that happens, that’ll be good. But for now, when really none of us knows what tomorrow’s going to throw at us anyway, we really want to be here, with them and very much with each other.

Small Things

It’s been difficult the past two weeks to even know what day of the week it was. The next three weeks are short weeks, because a PA Day and Easter, but still today feels like the first real Monday in a long time. I have a terrible cold but two kids in school and that in our house is a big deal. I have tea and a Meg Wolitzer book I’ve never read beside me on the couch. I’m under my favourite blanket. Scott is finished teaching for the term, which means his regular day hours are the same but because he only teaches night courses, we have him every night until May and then he’s only teaching one course instead of two.

The sun is trying to peak through the fog and the room around me is lighting up as I type. I haven’t written any fiction in so long and am missing it very much. I’m thinking of making a goal for myself – a small one – to write a new short story in the next few months, maybe before the end of the school year.

Onward!

This is an old picture, we still have snow and that bunting has been taken down. And since this picture, we have moved on. I have been stuck, not able to move forward because of wondering if I was going to be able to meet my deadline of returning to work April 1. Things are still hard and we don’t need any extra worries. I’m lucky to be able to be at home keeping the waters as calm as I can. So this week I resigned from my job at the library and honestly, I’m feeling better than I have in weeks.

So onwards! For spring, for new writing opportunities (I have one! I’m really excited!), for this blog, for all the books, for family and friends who love us and for being exactly where I need to be right now which is the very place I want to be with my favourite people.

Nana

This week is going to be less writing and more March Breaking, which isn’t doing much because my kids don’t want to do anything. It’s hard. I miss the days of lugging them around, plopping them in car seats and strollers and doing stuff! Nowadays going to see Captain Marvel no doubt outshines any trips to a sugar bush.

I got away this weekend, on my own which was wonderful! I took the early train to Union Station where I picked up my aunt who was loaded down with bagels and coffee and we took another train to Whitby. We spent the entire day with my Nana who turned 92 this weekend. Nana is amazing. The fact that she is 92 is a mere technicality, she is smarter and funnier and braver than I’ll ever be.

Nana lives in a retirement village in Whitby, alone now after my Boppa passed away three years ago. The end of February marked what would have been their seventieth wedding anniversary. She misses him fiercely, we all do. Although she has has friends and activities to keep busy, at times she’s lonely, of course she is. The thing she does that amazes me the most is how she so clearly knows what she needs and she does it. She says ‘no’ to things when she feels like it, she walks when she needs to, she reads or doesn’t, she rests or doesn’t. She advocates for good among some people who are unable to keep an open mind in a world that is far different than theirs may have once been. She tells people not to be racist or homophobic with gentle and quiet words. She is kind. She and a friend work year round sending packages to schools in Northern Ontario for students in need. She is wildly funny and intelligent. She has never closed herself off to ideas or experiences that challenge her. She is realistic and doesn’t like everyone because shes’ real, and you can’t like everyone. She puts up with constant pain in her legs and the doctors who tell her there’s isn’t anything they can do.

On Friday, when my aunt and I visited, we drank wine and ate chips and talked and laughed for eight hours straight, often cutting each other off with more things to say. It may have started out being Nana’s birthday we were celebrating, but it was also the best Women’s day I’ve ever had.


Something to Chew On

I am here writing for a few reasons, but the foremost one is to distract myself from eating a second croissant because obviously the first one was so good.

But more so I’m here to iron things out. There is a decision I need to make and neither choice is ideal or easy. Hence the croissant.

Last night was the first night in a few days that Rory went to bed fever-free. I let it slip that I was looking forward to sleeping through the night. Rory thought this was silly because despite the fever, he’d slept fine the night before. So I was honest and told him I’d been awake wondering how he was but not wanting to wake him. William overheard this and just said, ‘wow, you’re the best mom.’ He went on to explain that it’s just really nice to hear how much I care. My heart is still slightly skipping a beat when I remember my almost 14 year old saying this to me. Rory, only 11, still thought I was silly.

I jump around, I find it tricky to stick with things. I grew up with a mom who suffered from extreme mental illness and rode her emotions daily. Her good days were mine, etc. It’s kind of the same now, and it is with most parents, however extreme their kids high or lows are, you go up and down with them. What I’m getting at is that I have found it tricky over the years to find a lot of consistency in my own endeavors, especially writing. I got a job teaching grade 6/7 straight out of OISE, I was 24. I wore overalls and braided pigtails the week before school started when I was in my own classroom painting bookshelves. I got yelled at for trespassing by a teacher who I’d yet to meet. There was a money pool that I’d never last the year. I did. I taught that class and special ed for the next 8 years, with one mat leave when William was born.

I did one more year and got pregnant with Rory when Scott got a job at UW, so we moved. Things for teaching had changed quickly and in order to go back after another mat leave I would have had to start at the bottom and work my way back up. I didn’t, I happily stayed home until Rory was in kindergarten. We spent our days in the library down the street and after a year volunteering some nights a week, they hired me to work circulation.

It was a mat leave that I was covering but before it ended I managed to get hired permanently in the same role but another position. I loved those years and some of my best friends today are those women I worked with. I moved to another branch when I got a job as a Children’s Programmer, the hours were doubled. It was a huge change to our family life but I loved it until things got to be hard at about a year’s mark when William got sick. I can tell you the date and the time (I’m not kidding, it hit him that hard and that fast) when life completely turned upside down – that hour of space marking Before and After. He was in grade 5 and my side of the story to tell here is that I quit my job by the end of the week. He was home for a few months. I didn’t do this alone, Scott took off every minute, and day and week he could, it was a two person job. After six months the library (who is wonderful and so supportive) offered me a part time position in the Children’s department and on the Info desk upstairs in the Adult department. I did that happily (albeit more than not I was coming into work pretending the world wasn’t still falling apart, but who doesn’t do that from time to time?) until this past October when things took another turn. Things are good (and so good) and not good everyday. Mostly, they are just still so very unpredictable.

The kids start grade 7 and 9 this fall, I can barely believe it. New schools for both. Obviously, it’s going to be hard. So it doesn’t take a genius to guess what my decision is, with my going back to work date looming for next month.

I started this post wanting to write less about the specifics and more about how reading has been the most consistent thing in my life for as long as I can remember and how grateful I am for that (reading the Ferrante series when I quit my job three years ago was the best reading experience I’d ever had). But then I ate a croissant and my mind decided to go another way.




That’s Better

My last post was awfully mopey and I felt better not long after posting. It reminded me of those terrible days when the kids went to school feeling so poorly and I was left at home worrying only to find out they were fine by gym class or recess or a pizza lunch.

And now on to lovely things.

  1. Driving in horrible snow yesterday to pick everyone up and unable to find traction on the road but able to find the Backstreet Boys on the radio.
  2. Buying treats at the grocery store before 10 am. I used PC points and bought tulips, new conditioner, a Pokemon essential guide for William and a graphic novel Rory has been pining after. Pokemon is a new interest around here, brought on probably by the upcoming movie. I miss the days when the kids were small and would pour over those big guidebooks, so this makes me happy.
  3. Making delicious cornbread to go with homemade chili. I got Julia Turshen’s newest cookbook from Scott for Christmas, there are so many good things. Her podcast is also great.
  4. Finding an old hour and a half long interview between Emma Straub and Ann Patchett that I paid $6 for from Google audiobooks.
  5. Walking my dog with a secret stash of Mini Eggs in my pocket.
  6. Starting the fourth installment of the Lane Winslow mystery series and discovering it’s the best one!
  7. Giving myself permission to read all the books I can before I go back to work.
  8. Remembering that on May 4 I have tickets (nosebleed, but still) to see Michelle Obama in Toronto!
  9. This blog post that made so much better – thanks Kerry Clare for sending it.
  10. Scott. Just everything.