No.1 on the UK Sunday Times Bestseller List and making it into the top 5 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Add to that a tonne of rave reviews and the fact that it beat Michelle Obama’s Becoming to win the title of Book of the Year (although as much as I love Michelle, I thought she could have done better!) – you can’t blame a girl for expecting great things from Sally Rooney’s Normal People. After all some have gone as far as to say that this book was the literary phenomenon of the year. But unfortunately, I have to say I was left truly underwhelmed. I think it should rather be titled : Self-Indulgent Teenagers and their First World Problems. Or something along those lines. Let me elaborate.
Normal People is the story of Connell and Marianne, who are about 18 at the start of the book. Typical high school stuff. Despite being from a working class, single-parent home, Connell is a popular guy, well-adjusted, the Irish equivalent of a jock (but smart). Marianne, on the other hand, is a bit of a social outcast, wealthy but weird (the other kids seem to think she has a psychiatric disorder). Although, they are different in almost every way possible (well, except that he is weird too in his own special way) they have some sort of ‘connection’ and in the final year of school they decide to embark on a ‘romance’ which they agree to keep secret (read: FWB arrangement) because it would be social suicide for Connell and god knows what for misfit Marianne.
Fast forward a year, and they both find themselves at university in Dublin (no coincidence: She puts the idea into his easily influenced mind). But PLOT TWIST there is a little bit of role reversal, as Marianne has somehow managed to find her feet (probably more to do with finding other wealthy folk to hang with rather than the plebs that seemed to populate their small town high school) while Connell struggles as a small fish in a big pond. The whole ‘thing’ between them is a bit on/off throughout their time at university, and while they do go through periods of seeing other people, they somehow always end up back together. Despite growing up a bit and becoming more comfortable about being out and proud in public together, the whole relationship comes across a little half-hearted to me (perhaps it’s just me and my fairytale notions of romance that are at fault here). Anyway, the book basically continues exploring ‘couples’ ups and downs through that weird teenage/early-20 something period in your life when you are supposedly questioning the meaning of life and everything else, the world is your oyster and all your problems seem insurmountable before coming to what some might call an abrupt end. Although in my humble opinion, I’d have to say the ending was the best part. LOL.
To be fair though, it’s an easy read and perhaps resonates more with a younger (teen) /millennial audience (after all they are said to be self-indulgent). You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand it and you’ll likely not spend more than a week on it. But it’s hardly a page turner. The characters all seem to think too much about themselves and their #firstworldproblems. The only character who has a little bit more substance to her is Lorraine, Connell’s mother who is a hardworking late 30-something working class mother trying to make ends meet while trying to raise a son who isn’t too much of a douche. Sally Rooney’s writing style was also a bit obscure. Although, the language is accessible it’s almost as if the author doesn’t want to give too much away. I suppose, she wants you to read between the lines. But it just didn’t work for me. Oh, and maybe I’m just old school but what’s with the lack of speech marks? Some new fangled form of writing that I missed the memo on?
On balance, I think the book had the potential to be really good. The university years are character building. It is the first time most young people venture out into the world alone and learn to ‘fend’ for themselves (although, I know plenty of folk who still took bundles of laundry home for mummy dearest to do!). It’s also a great opportunity to reinvent yourself and rid yourself of the image people had of you in high school. And there is also plenty to learn from those drunken nights out. So yeah, plenty of potential content right there but I don’t think Sally Rooney really picked the best elements for this story.
And so while all the literary critics thought Normal People was something revolutionary, I think much of its sparkle went over my head. If you haven’t read it, I can recommend a bunch of other books you should read first. If you still curious to see what the fuss is about, go for it but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Have you read Normal People? Did you see what all the fuss was about? If so, please enlighten me.