Normal People by Salley Rooney

Synopsis: Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years.

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Despite the inescapable marketing of Rooney’s second novel, news of the TV adaptation flooding the internet, and bookstores peddling Normal People like there was no tomorrow, I somehow turned the first page with reasonably high expectations and yet absolutely no idea what I actually signed up for.

Normal People explores intimacy, depression, class divides, and the daunting march of time in a way that is now a distant memory. Reading a book so focused on how entwined it’s two central protagonists are, physically and emotionally, made me long for our pre-2020 world.

Rooney’s refreshing story structure offered a long-term exploration of the pair’s tricky relationship. However, I was often lost in their timeline when rejoining the narrative after two or three days without reading. Flashbacks can serve as an interesting side-dish to enhance the experience of the main course, however the flavour of Rooney’s narrative is muddied by a dawdling presentation that leaves you always feeling one course behind.

Though, credit should be issued where due as the dialogue of Normal People is naturally woven into the prose without speech marks, distinguished by a shift in language or via context clues with relative ease. Rarely did I find myself mistaking dialogue for prose.

Sadly, I found myself losing interest in Marianne and Connell as characters and the back and forth nature of their relationship. While, at first seeming like a sly and witty game of tennis, this spark and activity dwindled as their relationship developed. Connell and Marianne are both high achievers academically, but left emotionally out of touch.

The ‘on again off again’ narrative surrounding their romance and time jumps between chapters became tiresome, and made it difficult to follow their individual emotional arcs. In fact, I question whether Marianne even grew at all throughout the book.

Peripheral characters, aside from Connell’s Mother and Marianne’s boyfriend Jamie, were left out in the cold. Underdeveloped and seemingly brushed off by our protagonists, it would have been uplifting to see more of Marianne’s kinder friends and Connell’s girlfriend, Helen.

Overall, Normal People is an admirable contemporary romance novel, the perfect holiday read. It’s an accessible and ‘relatable’ story, while also tapping on the surface of some darker themes. However, where it fails is within the central characters themselves, their development, and the unique structure that leaves readers at arms length. The entire book sits below a cloud of pessimism that is hard to shake, even in lighter moments.

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