Sally Rooney goes back to College
One way or another we’ve all come to learn various truths about life in our formative years, and while our conclusions may differ based on our experiences, I think we can all agree the most impactful type of learning comes from the harder paths in life. After all, we have a tendency to better remember our suffering rather than our success, and when we hear stories about people, we are generally more interested in their hardships than victories. In Normal People by Sally Rooney, it’s precisely the kind of story we get revolving around two young students.
The plot opens by presenting us with Connell and Marianne, two students who generally pretend to be unaware of each other’s existence. However, this changes one day when Connell comes to pick up his mother from her work at Marianne’s house and a strange connection sparks between the two youngsters. A year later they both find themselves at Trinity College in Dublin, and find their roles from high-school reversed: Marianne is thriving in her new environment while Connell appears to be the maladjusted one.
The next few years will mark both of them for the rest of their lives as they circle one another all while exploring the many venues of adventure, both good and bad, offered by the young adult life. Though something always seems to be pulling them apart they are drawn together time and time again, putting them both to the test when dark times start clouding their lives. Together, they are about to learn just how difficult it can be to find meaning in this life and how far they are truly prepared to go in order to save one another.
A Trip with the Youth of Today
As the years fly by one after the other, I think we all have difficulty realizing how far removed from the youth of today we are becoming; after all, if you were cool a year ago, why wouldn’t you still be today? I think most of us reach a stage where we come to terms of how we collectively passed the torch of youth down to the next generation, meaning we can no longer speak for them. In other words, the reality of life for young people today should, first and foremost, be spoken about by them before anyone else, and it feels to me as if Sally Rooney is the right person for the job.
From the very first pages I felt the author had an excellent understanding of psychology as she never shied away from attempting to depict and explain her character’s internal states. Connell and Marianne quickly go from brand new characters to familiar faces, ones whose fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams we can easily understand. What’s more, their development arcs are, in my opinion, quite remarkable when examined from start to finish; they both change in quite drastic and yet believable ways when we take into account how chaotic the early years of adult life can be.
In my personal opinion, most authors don’t really know how to write young characters; they often sound unrealistic and robotic, showing the authors to be drawing on their selective memories of adolescence. For this reason, I was quite pleasantly surprised I didn’t feel this way even for a second in regards to the characters in this novel. They speak, act and think in ways which denote inexperience, hardheadedness, and longing for something they cannot understand or describe, which I believe are the primary elements of the young adult character.
Social Complexities Aplenty in Normal People
While in general terms one might come to think of this as being a coming-of-age novel with a dose of romance, Sally Rooney isn’t for a second afraid to take things to much deeper levels. Along with the exploration of youth psychology, Rooney also delves into other matters, such as the subtle division between classes, how bonds of loyalty affect us, the complex dynamics of family, the yearning for self-destruction, and the desperate grasp for meaning we are all guilty of at one point or another. In other words, there layers of depth are numerous in this novel and you can lose yourself for quite a while thinking of all the topics presented by the author.
I believe all of those elements I’ve discussed up until now come together quite effectively in terms of making the plot fun to follow. This certainly isn’t some high-paced action thriller with twists at every turn; it moves onward relatively slowly and does take a break (so to speak) in certain areas. Thankfully, the amount of elements we have for analysis greatly help to fill any lulls in the progression of the story, and whenever anything happens to either of our two protagonists we instinctively pay close attention because we care about them.
With this being said, you will definitely also find some of the classic elements any novel requires to retain the reader’s attention, with a few character twists, uncertain fates, sources of conflict, and so on and so forth. I just wish Connell and Marianne didn’t spend so many pages tentatively circling each other because we, the readers, can already tell where their story is going at those points. However, it’s only a minor gripe and easy to look past.
The Final Verdict
Normal People by Sally Rooney is a very interesting character study focused on dissecting the youth of today, exploring the psychological and emotional travails of their existence, through the easily likeable characters of Connell and Marianne. I believe this novel is fantastic for younger readers, containing plenty of intellectual nourishment along with a story which keeps you interested… and even if you’re not a younger reader, I believe there is still a lot to be gained from this novel, the least of which is seeing this new author’s literary capabilities.
Sally Rooney is an Irish author whose debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was published in 2017. Following the reception of the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, she went on to publish her second novel in 2018 titled Normal People. She also has the distinction of having been elected a scholar in 2011 at Trinity Dublin College where she completed a degree in American Literature.