Normal People by Sally Rooney was published in 2018 and quickly rose to fame. It won the 2018 Costa Book Award for Best Novel and the 2019 British Book Award for Book of the Year, and in 2020, it was adapted into a television series.
Normal People revolves around Marianne and Connell, two individuals who grew up in the same neighborhood in Ireland. Although Marianne was an outcast and Connell a popular jock, the two formed an intimate relationship towards the end of secondary school. This relationship led the two of them to attend the same college, where Marianne became popular and Connell was left isolated from his peers and the world. The book depicts the relationship between the two and the problems they face as young adults over the course of several years.
The best part of the book was undoubtedly the social commentary on the class differences between Connell and Marianne. While Connell and Marianne participate in many of the same activities, Rooney discusses the differences in their motives and struggles. When Marianne is able to pay for an education and still have money for leisure, Connell works several jobs in order to provide for himself. Marianne’s college scholarship is a way for her to appear educated to peers, while Connell uses his scholarship to enjoy opportunities in college while not having to worry about tuition and living expenses.
Through the commentary, Rooney approaches very important and real experiences in life but does not provide enough explanation to do each of these topics justice. In addition, all the topics are viewed through a rosy lens, romanticizing serious issues like eating disorders and sexual assault. For example, the reader is repeatedly informed of Marianne’s unhealthy eating habits, consisting of minimal meals, but is never told the serious consequences of such behavior. Instead, Normal People focuses on the frailty of Marianne’s body, pushing her thinness to center stage.
If this glorification isn’t bad enough, Rooney builds upon the book’s unbearability by introducing sexual elements to everything. Important, potentially insightful conversations are immediately followed with promiscuous interactions between Connell and Marianne. Discussion about the serious effects of abusive family relationships are overshadowed by characters taking suggestive photos. Rooney emphasizes that such situations are necessary to the story-telling, but a quick read-through finds that they are simply filler paragraphs.
Finally, Rooney insists on pushing the boundaries of traditional novel-writing, leaning into an unorthodox use of writing conventions. The fake-deep “prose,” from inconsistent punctuation to zero quotation marks to unnecessary clauses, lacks any positive impact on the book and its message. In essence, Normal People was boring and frustrating, and the failed execution of an interesting premise led to ultimate disappointment.