Power, Sex and Love in Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’

The Irish novelist Sally Rooney centers her drama, Normal People, around the desperations of youth under late-capitalism, but the novel's psychological excavations, nuanced and piercing, owe just as much to the influence of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf.

Normal People
Sally Rooney
Hogarth / Knopf
Apr 2019

To review Sally Rooney‘s latest work almost necessitates a kind of self-conscious disclaimer, even when the review itself is effusive. Rooney’s second novel, Normal People is, by virtue of her obvious talent and easy marketability (critics have taken to labeling her a “millennial novelist”), an enormous literary event, and as such it’s inspired nearly every critical evaluation imaginable. The temptation to disclaim, then, that an opinion rightly takes into consideration this entire life-cycle of criticism can threaten to occlude the basic question of whether or not the work is, in itself, interesting.

Normal People is inarguably interesting, regardless of how aware a reader is about Rooney’s rise to fame; the opinion of this reviewer is that the book is also a formidable literary achievement. The novel tracks nearly five years of the relationship between Connell and Marianne, two students in the west of Ireland. It’s similar to Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends (Hogarth, 2018) in terms of character dynamics; both novels are, depending on one’s point of view, either love stories or stories about characters who needlessly complicate their own lives in pursuit of a dubious connection adjacent to love.

Unlike Conversations with Friends‘ Frances and Nick, who were adulterers with a ten-year age gap, Connell and Marianne are in the same grade at school. But the power dynamics are still evident: Connell is a popular, if quiet, soccer player, and Marianne is an intellectually curious outcast. At the novel’s opening, Connell arrives at Marianne’s house (a large, nice one) to pick up his mother Lorraine, who works as a maid for Marianne’s family.

For better or worse, Connell and Marianne are both rather passive. Disenfranchised, even. The question of who has the power isn’t one with obvious implications — it’s not like the pair are about to get into a fist fight — but rather one that requires a psychologically astute guiding force. Luckily Rooney is that force. The pair first begin sleeping with each other in high school, intrigued by one another’s intelligence and curiosity, and yet Connell quickly draws boundaries between a potential boyfriend-girlfriend relationship and whatever it is the two actually have together. Marianne, desperate and infatuated, abides by this code of secrecy. But when Connell takes a different girl (a popular girl) to prom, Marianne is devastated. The pair stop talking, at least for a while.

Those well-attuned to form and style will notice clear similarities between Rooney’s two novels. The sentences are spare and, as her first novel alludes, mostly conversational. Before graduating high school, Connell and Marianne sneak off to an abandoned house to have sex. They talk post-coitus:

“I don’t just like you for your brains, trust me.
She laughed, feeling silly.
He rubbed her ear with his nose and added: I would miss you if you didn’t want to see me anymore.
Would you miss sleeping with me? she said.
He touched his hand against her hipbone, rocking her back against his body, and said quietly: Yeah, a lot.”

It can be startling how adept Rooney is at weaving the unspoken in with the spoken, hinting at internal motivations and insecurities without making them overt. The directness of the prose, and of the dialogue, gives off the impression of simplicity, but the social dynamics are intricate. In the scene above, Marianne is still Connell’s little secret, shepherded into private spaces where sex can be enjoyed without a breach from the outside world. Connell is a nice boy, especially in Marianne’s eye: Silent, thoughtful, intelligent, generous. And yet their class disparity, and different social statuses create external pressures that render their desires unwelcome and impractical.

This device works in theory, even if only because it’s such a prevalent romantic trope. In practice, it’s slightly baffling how two white, straight students could feel so taboo in their relationship that they sabotage something so clearly meaningful. But to be rational in the land of teenagers and young adults is perhaps too nitpicky — there’s plenty else going on, even if it’s just a simple fear of intimacy that could be used to explain the pair’s wishy-washiness when it comes to love.

From a “forbidden love” standpoint, Conversations with Friends is more convincing; Nick is married, and he’s quite a bit older than Frances. In that book, the central pair have to navigate their lovers’ lovers, not to mention the socially mandated secrecy innate to having an affair. As such, Frances and Nick communicate with each other largely online. This thread, of texting and emailing and desperately creating meaning out of the written word, is largely missing from Normal People, even if Connell and Marianne do frequently email while separated.

As the novel progresses, the pair are both accepted to Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne fits in and is instantly popular; Connell struggles to connect with anyone and becomes depressed. They’re never really boyfriend-girlfriend, but they’re always connected to one another by some form of intense intimacy. Both try other partners, but they always manage to find their way back. Online communications are necessitated only when fate has them apart, as when Connell must go home for the summer (unlike Marianne, he can’t afford to stay in Dublin), and even then they’re more formal and deliberate than Frances and Nick’s slapdash confessions. Later in the novel, when Marianne is studying in Sweden on scholarship, Connell writes about seeing deer while driving in the night:

“To me it’s weird when animals pause because they seem so intelligent, but maybe that’s because I associate pausing with thought. Deer are elegant anyway I have to say. If you were an animal yourself, you could do worse than be a deer. They have those thoughtful faces and nice sleek bodies. But they also kind of startle off in unpredictable ways.”

This is around the time, coincidentally, that Connell begins to write stories, and the literariness of his email couches an unexplored talent that will later provide a means of opportunity. But the comparison of Marianne to a sleek, thoughtful deer also provides an emotional outlet — one safe and distanced, the perfect vessel for the things they’re unable to express to each other while together.

For a contemporary novel, Normal People is heavily indebted to authors like Jane Austen (while in college Connell holes up in the library reading Emma) and Virginia Woolf (the book’s epigraph is a quote from Daniel Deronda). It falls short of a retelling or repurposing, but its uncanny manner of parsing social dynamics, whether it be popular vs. unpopular or rich vs. poor, alludes to these canonical works. Rooney’s attention to modern devices like email only complicates matters further, adding pressure. Connell and Marianne doubtlessly feel that pressure, but they’ve also internalized it, unwilling or unable to rise above the judgment of the masses.

Rooney’s politics are Marxist, and in Conversations with Friends, Frances and her friend Bobbi were outspoken — heated, even — about their political beliefs. Connell and Marianne are politically aware, but mostly the pair seem either too disillusioned (in Connell’s case) or insulated (Marianne’s) to turn thoughts into action. Even the book’s title, Normal People, insinuates a sort of communist equality between characters, as though Rooney, Connell and Marianne themselves all recognize the futility of considering oneself special in the modern world.

But Connell eventually gets a story accepted in the school’s literary magazine and, at novel’s end, gets a scholarship to an MFA program in New York. As if by the grace of a higher power, Connell and Marianne must separate again. It’s easy to ask whether the pair will end up together, but the more interesting question might be: Is an MFA really Connell’s saving grace? Do we trust in the life-changing power of an advanced education? Unlike in Conversations with Friends, where Frances and Nick more or less end up together, Normal People has the central pair apart at the novel’s end, though with promises to once again reunite. It’s unclear, from Rooney’s perspective, which ending is meant to be more aspirational. Maybe that’s intentional. Perhaps her next book will let us know.