Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

20 Books of Summer 2020: Book 9

There’s a lot about Normal People that’s normal for high school and college relationships, but I have less patience for this type of story now than I would if I’d read this book from a dorm room. I don’t understand reviews that paint it as romantic or funny, because I’d argue it’s a starting point to talk about codependency. There’s room in literature for unhappy characters, and I love thorough character studies, even of miserable people, but there’s too much about this book that doesn’t work for me—bad communication between the lead couple, gimmicky structure, a lack of quotation marks, and a non-ending. I don’t mind open endings, in theory, but Normal People lacks an overall arc and its characters remain unchanged. A non-ending on a book like this leaves it feeling incomplete.

[Due to the cyclical nature of Connell and Marianne’s relationship, this paragraph is simultaneously background information and a nearly complete summary.] Connell (poor and popular) and Marianne (rich and unpopular) go to the same high school. They have a relationship, but Connell refuses to acknowledge that he knows Marianne at school. They break up, then attend the same college, where they have an on-again, off-again thing. When they’re off-again, Marianne pursues deeply unhealthy relationships, and Connell is depressed. They’re “happy” when together, but drift apart due to poor communication and a host of unresolved (and untreated) issues.

My initial opinion of the book’s structure was positive. The first chapter is titled “January 2011” and subsequent chapters are titled “Three Weeks Later (February 2011),” “One Month Later (March 2011),” and so on. Breaking down the action like this allows for a sort of highlight reel of Connell and Marianne’s relationship. The writing is descriptive enough that I could infer the broad strokes of what happened during the narrative break, but then a number of chapters established the new normal before recapping key moments from previous months. This style reminds me of something that bugs me about my own writing: it’s “easy” to write the main story beats, but connective tissue is hard. Dumping exposition into a disjointed timeline feels like a shortcut. Or maybe I’m jealous I didn’t think of it first.

The lack of quotation marks also adds to my impression that the book is missing something. Some authors make a lack of quotation marks feel natural, or their conversations are brief enough that speech is consistently clear, but I struggled throughout Normal People. Connell and Marianne are wishy-washy when communicating their wants/needs, even if their internal monologue is more straightforward. There were times when I thought one or the other said something they didn’t and had to reread a scene. I don’t like doubling back for something that basic punctuation can clarify.

It’s not uncommon for a book to focus on the main cast and leave the supporting characters unsupported, but it’s a real bummer here because both Connell and Marianne are largely defined by other people. Connell worries too much about what other people might think, and Marianne’s destructive streak seems rooted in her family’s abuse. Though Connell often speaks with friends or new girlfriends, and Marianne interacts with her loathsome brother, these interactions don’t illuminate the central questions around either character. Again, this adds to the overall feeling that the book is unfinished.

It’s hard to rate Normal People because all of my quibbles are things others like about this book, or things I might like in another book. For example, I can see myself describing the thinness of the background characters as an asset: Connell and Marianne are obsessed with themselves and each other—why would they put effort into explaining other people? If everyone in this book were fully three-dimensional, it would undercut Connell and Marianne. And why does Normal People need an ending? It’s about two people who are together (and apart) over a four-year period. No book is obligated to follow a character until death. An urge to wrap things up completely is behind every crappy epilogue ever penned. After Dark is incredibly incomplete and I loved that about it. Taken singly, none of these quibbles is problematic, but the confluence grates on me.

What most tips this book into my dislike pile is that after wading through the various stylistic choices, I was left with an unresolved story about a codependent relationship. I don’t love codependency in books/films UNLESS it leads to an interesting story. I know codependent people in real life. It’s fascinating from a psychological perspective but exhausting to be around. So, here, where the story IS the codependency, I just felt tired:

Whatever there is between him and Marianne, nothing good has ever come of it. It has only ever caused confusion and misery for everyone. He can’t help Marianne, no matter what he does. There’s something frightening about her, some huge emptiness in the pit of her being. It’s like waiting for a lift to arrive and when the doors open nothing is there, just the terrible dark emptiness of the elevator shaft, on and on forever. She’s missing some primal instinct, self-defense or self-preservation, which makes other human beings comprehensible. You lean in expecting resistance, and everything just falls away in front of you. Still, he would lie down and die for her at any minute, which is the only thing he knows about himself that makes him feel like a worthwhile person. (254)

Therapy. Now.

Overall: 3.0 (out of 5.0). I totally get it if you’d rate it higher or lower. If I were still in college and still around this type of relationship, it might have struck me as more profound than profoundly tiring.

Previously on

Books read, reviews coming soon

  • Florida by Lauren Groff
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

Reading in progress

  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett

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