“Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell”.
When I first read this line, over four years ago, I had not yet discovered how this would, in actual fact, be emblematic of Normal People. In this sentence alone, Sally Rooney successfully embodies the convoluted power dynamic within the duo’s relationship, on both a physical and emotional level. The fact that such complexity permeates throughout the novel, a time period spanning their last year at school through their university experiences at Trinity College Dublin, is reason enough for how and why I became completely infatuated with Rooney’s masterpiece.
Despite their undeniable differences in character, Rooney establishes both Connell and Marianne as discernible, identifiable, and realistic individuals, with whom the audience can instantly draw parallels. Whereas at school Marianne is perceived as an arrogant, isolated, and judgemental ‘outsider’, Connell, in spite of his shyness, proves to be a popular individual, undoubtedly facilitated by his attractive looks and success in the school’s Gaelic football team. However, such superficial descriptions fail to entirely encapsulate the complexity and nuance of Rooney’s characterisations. Rather, Marianne’s submissiveness, alongside Connell’s inability to ever feel like a truly authentic version of himself, contribute to the fraught dynamics of an evolving relationship between two such individualised characters.
During their time at school, Connell forces Marianne to keep their rendezvous a secret – an oath the latter would always keep. This is fundamental to Rooney’s narrative: exposing the weaknesses, virtues, and self-delusions of vulnerable individuals. It is revealed that Marianne’s passivity is the product of a long-lasting history of family abuse, as she succumbs to the emotional and physical abuse of her mother and brother. Meanwhile, Connell is plagued by social anxiety, viewing their romance as an impossibility, a trait which proves to be a self-deprecating tendency.
Once attending university, their social statuses tremendously reverse, as Marianne now assimilates in an environment in which she is truly appreciated and to which she belongs – unlike Connell. Rather, he relies upon her popularity to branch out and forge friendships, yet soon begins to realise that the student demographic do not resemble himself or his beliefs. His university experience journeys into a poignant storyline as he is forced to counter his emotions and admit his intense struggles with anxiety and depression.
Thus, for me, there are merely two prominent continuities throughout the novel. The first being that both protagonists suffer from forms of self-loathing. The second being that the two eventually gravitate towards one another, despite the barriers they face. Despite the fusion of the two continuities, the couple are ultimately unable to effectively communicate with the other, despite the intensity of their deep-rooted love. Whether it be Connell asking another girl to the Debs, an Irish equivalent to a prom, or, later, his refusal to reveal to Marianne the fact he is unable to afford his rent in Dublin, the two are delicately positioned on the fragile frontiers in their relationship. These gaps in communication inevitably lead to their temporary separation. This is undoubtedly a credit to Rooney’s ability to astoundingly observe and narrate the realities of love, which forces us to contemplate the complex relationships in our own lives, romantic or not.
I finished reading Normal People in one sitting. From the second I turned to the front page, to the second I read its last words, I was totally exhilarated and enthralled by the novel’s naturalness. Yes, Marianne and Connell’s relationship is toxic. Yes, Marianne and Connell’s relationship is frustrating. But we yearn for the same intimate, raw, and intense love the couple feel for one another. At its core, Rooney explores a tender, precious, and engrossing relationship, built upon the sheer intensity of a young love story, and the internally and externally manifested barriers they must constantly confront. Frankly, I have never read a novel where both the author and their characters have afterwards affected how I relate to others and myself. And I do not believe I will read another novel which will manage to achieve the same.
Image credits: Faber & Faber via Amazon