Normal People by Sally Rooney

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It was Tony’s enthusiasm for this book that moved me to read it and I must remember to thank him.

It is set in a small town in western Ireland and Dublin from 2011 to 2015; the characters are in high school, then at Trinity College. Marianne is a brilliant student, not attractive or liked by others; she shows disdain for her classmates. Connell is also brilliant as well as being one of the most popular students at school.

They begin seeing each other after school when Connell picks up his mother who cleans Marianne’s house. They keep their intimacy a secret for reasons that are complicated. There’s Connor’s desire to be popular but also important is the social class difference.

When Connell goes to the Deb (prom) with someone else, Marianne stops attending school except to take the exam and the connection between the two ends. At Trinity their social positions are reversed and they resume their connection, but do not quite have the understanding and trust to have a healthy relationship. The events of high school, and even more important, Marianne’s abusive brother and mother have made healthy interactions almost impossible. Despite each of their academic successes, they both suffer mental health problems.

This close examination of the effects of their connection to each other could easily be claustrophobic. Somehow the author makes it enlightening and absorbing. I readily accepted her terms and lived in that world, taking these characters as they came, believing what they said and thought. Though I am happy to have visited that world, it’s a relief to return to my own world of normal people.

In this novel the outsized importance of the high school/adolescent social framework is clear. It seems that how you were perceived in that strange environment is key to who you are as an adult.  It was noteworthy that when the characters are in college, to tell how they know another person, they say, “I knew him in school.” That means “school” is high school, even to college students.

Sally Rooney, Normal People, Faber and Faber, 2018, 266 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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