Struggling writers are often told to “write what they know.” Irish author Sally Rooney does exactly that in her sophomore novel “Normal People.” Only 28 years old, the author has been coined “The Salinger of the Snapchat generation.”
“Normal People” is a tribute to that strange, lofty title. Rooney cleverly writes of whip smart Irish twenty-somethings with a psychological acuity that feels like deep insight into the millennial generation. This is partnered with a deep spectrum of emotional examination, including a brilliant analysis of the imprint left from an ultimately timeless first love.
The two main characters, Marianne and Connell, seem opposite when they meet in their suburban secondary school. Connell is popular, well-adjusted and close with his single mother, while Marianne is socially ostracized and from an abusive, upper class home. Per Connell’s request, their relationship begins in private and falters shortly after it begins.
They go to the same college, lose touch and date other people, but they ultimately cross paths through concentric friend groups — where Marianne thrives socially and Connell is a nervous wreck. Every chapter of the book skips forward in time, either in hours, days, weeks or months, and switches perspectives between Connell and Marianne. This pacing, slow at times, is seamlessly executed. It feels human.
The strength of the connection Connell and Marianne built during secondary school created a bond that is ultimately unmatched by anything they’ve tried to feel since. They come back to each other time and time again for a multitude of reasons, but the most obvious explanation is that of mutual understanding. The two of them are deeply flawed, struggling to fit in and are heart-wrenchingly lonely, yet they find a sense of normality through one another. Rooney uses their shared experiences of deep vulnerability and growth as an ode to that first invaluable connection.
The multifaceted twists and turns of the main character’s relationship also touch on subtle class themes and societal expectations. Connell’s efforts to keep the relationship a secret, which he later realizes were futile, reflect the inherent self-absorption of adolescence and directly criticizes obsessive self-presentation.
On the surface, “Normal People” may dissemble a simplistic coming-of-age young adult novel, but it is anything but. The story is depressing and lonely and gets under your skin. The characters’ struggle to communicate is frustrating yet familiar, and the burden of emotions feels like a punch in the gut. While Marianne and Connell may not be relatable characters, the arduous emotions they’re faced with are accessible for any generation.