“Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was or become part of it.”-Sally Rooney, Normal People
Google Description: At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers—one they are determined to conceal.A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.
Original Rating: 9/10
Short Explanation: A love story about two people who crave independence. This story is the epitome of “if you love something, set it free”.
Long Explanation: There are maybe a handful of love stories that actually stick with me. I think this is because so many love stories are often repetitive and the characters are too “perfect” for me to enjoy or connect with any of them. That all falls away with Normal People.
First, I must say that I did have a hard time distinguishing between dialogue and narration. There are no quotation marks, which adds to the speed of the story but takes away from the readability of the story. I think that’s the form that Rooney wanted to experiment with and she does a good job, but I found myself having to re-read parts of the story to make sure that I was following the conversation.
Marianne and Connell come from two different backgrounds. I think in terms of family backgrounds, Marianne has it worse. Her mother is determined to pretend like Marianne doesn’t exist and abuses her when Marianne gets in her way. Her brother is also extremely abusive. Marianne also struggles with self-destructive tendencies. Connell, on the other hand, has a loving mother and no father. Connell also has severe anxiety and depression.
The story starts out with the two characters first being together. We see that Connell is seemingly selfish and heartless when it comes to Marianne. He is so fixated on what people think of him that he can’t truly express his feelings for her. This whole part of the novel is extremely anxiety inducing. We see both Marianne and Connell’s perspective and while we root for them to be together, we also feel for Marianne because she knows that Connell wants to hide her, but she cares for him too much to fight for her right to be shown off. I think this is a heartbreakingly real perspective on young relationships. Marianne is so caught up in being with Connel and Connell is so concerned with how others are going to view him that neither of them can truly be open with the other. Despite this, they love each other.
In between parts one and two, it’s important to discuss the nature of time. This story takes place over several years, through their high school and college years. They both attend Trinity College (in Dublin) together and are brought together by what seems to be fate. Time is the important third party in this story. Time pulls them apart and brings them back together. Time exposes their desires and strengthens their relationship. Without time, this love story would just be a story about heartbreak. The chapters are each a new month in their story. Sometimes, there are flashbacks, but for the most part, the flashbacks are fillers. This adds to the nature of time, the flashbacks are emotions at the time, but the present emotions show how much time it takes to truly fall out of love. Since Marianne and Connell are never truly apart or out of contact for a long enough time to ever really forget about each other, I think it’s why they keep going back to each other.
After Marianne and Connell go to college, thing’s flip-flop. Marianne is suddenly the one with a social group and Connell is the one who finds that he doesn’t belong. Connell, who once was so worried about people liking him, finds himself extremely out of place when he realizes that people at Trinity College don’t fit a certain mold. They are unapologetically themselves. I had the opportunity to visit Trinity College back in 2015 when my family and I visited Ireland. The thing that stuck out the most to me about this beautiful school was that people were so unaffected by the people around them. Our tour guide was an English major (like Connell) and he was content with where he was. He poked fun at the university, but underneath all of that, there was a sense that he truly loved where he ended up. Connell is pretty different from this. He credits much of his change to Marianne and makes it clear that he never would’ve been ambitious without her.
This connection between the two of them and fate is very true. It’s a matter of understanding how much people can impact your decisions. Connell, who wants to impress Marianne, chooses a college that he wouldn’t have considered without a push from her. This eventually changes the course of his life. I think that this is a very interesting thought process. How much do the people in our lives impact one another? How much are we indebted to others for the life decisions we make and how much are we responsible for our own actions? This is a very important theme throughout the novel and it’s one that hits everyone a little differently.
There is also much on the subject of mental health. Connell’s depression and anxiety dictates much of how he acts. That being said, what I loved about this book was that his depression and anxiety is not used as an excuse to justify his actions towards Marianne. She holds him accountable and this eventually leads to his recovery. This is a wonderful redemption arc for him. I think that the commentary beneath the whole mental health storyline here is that there is a time when people who struggle with mental illness push people away and find that they are utterly alone when they are ready to recover. But, this story shows that you are never truly alone and you can make amends for things you did when you were in a bad place.
In summary, I think this is one of the most realistic love stories I’ve read. The struggle between these two people who love each other and their desire for independence is something that I think any couple logically struggles with. There is also the question of how one person can pursue their passions without it being at the expense of the other. I love how supportive Connell and Marianne are of each other. In many ways this relationship is unhealthy, especially with the number of times they fight. But, I think that no relationship is perfect and Connell and Marianne have the most perfectly imperfect relationship that I’ve read about.
Afterthought Rating: 9.5/10
Overall Conclusion: If I could recommend a love story for all people in high school/college to read, it would be this one. I think that there is no reason that people can’t be together and pursue their happiness. This is also proof that if people are meant to be together, they will be. Love is a beautiful concept and this story shows just how powerful true love is. I highly recommend this book and I think you’ll really enjoy it. Let me know what you think!