Normal People, Sally Rooney’s second novel, doesn’t sound magical or special in summary: Connell is the popular high school boy, Marianne is the odd girl whose family hires Connell’s mother to clean for them. Connell and Marianne proceed to weave in and out of one another’s lives over the course of high school and college with a certain loving intensity. That’s it. That’s the plot.
But Sally Rooney knows that there’s depth and complexity in simplicity. Connell and Marianne’s roles start to shift over their years in college, but little else is revealed about either of them that you don’t learn from the opening pages. Instead, Rooney gives ample details about such things as the setting and life tidbits without ever getting bogged down in the specifics. Like a master chef, she doles out just enough. The fact that Connell and Marianne repeatedly have coffee as a part of their relationship and that Connell constantly rubs his eyes in conversation feels significant, but Rooney doesn’t forget characterization in lieu of symbolism.
The impressive feat of the writing is how real the characters are in a such a short span. After the opening chapter, the entirety of their world is fully realized. Nothing that happens is unbelievable, but this isn’t science fiction, either. Each sentence has a certain breath of life to it. No prose here isn’t doing it’s job for the story. It’s of note that Rooney disregards quotation marks and makes the time jumps bounce effortlessly and also helps the novel propel forward like time does. It will be interesting if the upcoming Hulu adaptation can capture all of the emotions of the text while interconnecting all of past and present.
Marianne is the centerpiece, though both characters weigh equally in the narrative. It’s the treatment of Marianne by all of the men in her life that give a sense of dread throughout; of course, Connell does have his own issues as well. What comes of fruition from those dire moments, I’ll leave to readers with the note that it all ends in such quiet, humble devastation.
Sally Rooney somehow crafts a comforting yet melancholic work with her second novel. In the end, it tells us that we are all different, complex, and weird, and in that, there’s normalcy.