Sunday, May 17, 2020

Normal People: a very short review

Normal People is Sally Rooney's second novel.

But of course you knew that. It's a worldwide bestseller, it won or was a finalist for every fiction award of the year, it's a major Hulu TV series, it's the staple of every book club around the globe, and I'm sure I've barely begun to scratch the surface of Normal People's presence in our lives.

Rooney is clearly a major phenomenon, and I'm certainly a member of the bandwagon.

But what is it about her work that everyone finds so compelling? Normal People is in many ways similar to Conversations with Friends. Stylistically, Rooney maintains her simple, intimate approach, telling much of the story through dialogue (complete with her affectation of eschewing quotation marks), and keeping the overall plot, setting, and set of characters minimal in order to focus on the human relationships that are of so much interest to her. And from a subject matter point of view she is clearly still content to "write what she knows", focusing again on a young woman from country Ireland who has made it to Dublin to study and learn in the Big City, while maintaining her on-again, off-again relationship with her hometown first boyfriend.

But Normal People is different than Conversations with Friends in several ways, too. It's somehow simultaneously both more intimate and yet coarser. I think Rooney yearns to let us more deeply into the lives of her characters. Where Conversations with Friends often was content to perch on the back of a chair at a table of young artists arguing about politics and art, Normal People goes deep, deep into the lives of these two "normal people" (who spend most of the book trying to explain how far from normal they feel).

Along the way, in sometimes exhausting stretches, they suffer through problem after problem: jealousy, inadequacy, abuse, addiction, infidelity, depression, self-destructive behavior. All of it normal, but all of it painful.

It sounds awful, but because every page is told with love and empathy, the result is actually beautiful.

For example, here's Rooney showing how the slightest of mis-steps in a simple conversation, the merest of mis-understandings, can suddenly and unexpectedly become a major confrontation without anyone understanding how it happened:

Hey, listen. By the way. It looks like I won't be able to pay rent up here this summer. Marianne looked up from her coffee and said flatly: What?

Yeah, he said. I'm going to have to move out of Niall's place.

When? said Marianne.

Pretty soon. Next week maybe.

Her face hardened, without displaying any particular emotion. Oh, she said. You'll be going home, then.

He rubbed at his breastbone then, feeling short of breath. Looks like it, yeah, he said.

She nodded, raised her eyebrows briefly and then lowered them again, and stared down into her cup of coffee. Well, she said. You'll be back in September, I assume.

His eyes were hurting and he closed them. He couldn't understand how this had happened, how he had let the discussion get away like this. It was too late to say he wanted to stay with her, that was clear, but when had it become too late? It seemed to have happened immediately. He contemplated putting his face down on the table and just crying like a child. Instead he opened his eyes again.

Rooney is clearly fascinated by the power of writing to help convey things that you can't just get from surface observations.

Last summer she read one of Connell's stories for the first time. It gave her such a peculiar sense of him as a person to sit there with the printed pages, folded over in the top-left corner because he had no staples. In a way she felt very close to him while reading, as if she was witnessing his most private thoughts, but she also felt him turned away from her, focused on some complex task of his own, one she could never be part of. Of course, Sadie can never be part of that task either, not really, but at least she's a writer, with a hidden imaginary life of her own. Marianne's life happens strictly in the real world, populated by real individuals. She thinks of Connell saying: People are a lot more knowable than they think they are. But still he has something she lacks, an inner life that does not include the other person.

But little of Normal People is of this ilk. Rooney has very quickly moved far beyond the literary chitchat of Conversations with Friends, and what she is after now is bigger fish.

What is it that makes a relationship work? As Rooney so elegantly explains, it comes down to time, trust, and compromise:

I can stay and you can go, she says. It's just a year. I think you should do it.

He makes a strange, confused noise, almost like a laugh. He touches his neck. She puts the towel down and starts brushing the knots out of her hair slowly.

That's ridiculous, he says. I'm not going to New York without you. I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for you.

It's true, she thinks, he wouldn't be. He would be somewhere else entirely, living a different kind of life. He would be different with women even, and his aspirations for love would be different. And Marianne herself, she would be another person completely. Would she ever have been happy? And what kind of happiness might it have been? All these years they've been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions. But in the end she has done something for him, she's made a new life possible, and she can always feel good about that.


To be honest, I don't know what to do, he says. Say you want me to stay and I will.

She closes her eyes. He probably won't come back, she thinks. Or he will, differently. What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once. They've done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change each other.

You should go, she says. I'll always be here. You know that.

All too few of us are lucky enough to find another "little plant sharing the same plot of soil," what a lovely and perfect description!

Normal People is a marvelous novel, but what is more marvelous is how rapidly Rooney is developing as a writer. I can't wait for her next book, whatever it may be.

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