Today is Normal People Day, a day dedicated to showering love and appreciation upon Sally Rooney’s luminous second novel.
If you’ve been in the bookish corners of social media at any point over the last year, you’re bound to have heard of Normal People. It’s a simple ‘will-they-won’t-they’ love story about two people from rural Ireland, Marianne and Connell, who are drawn together despite the myriad ways in which they are different. Marianne is outspoken and abrasive, an outcast at school, while Connell is a quiet but popular boy with a deeply sensitive and anxious streak. They meet and fall in love while in high school and later enrol in Trinity College together. The book follows Marianne and Connell through their college years, not so much capturing the trajectory of their relationship but giving readers a glimpse into their lives as they come together and apart, over and over again.
It’s a beautifully written book, with potent, stripped back sentences that perfectly convey all the highs and lows of love in our modern life. Not only has it garnered universal critical acclaim, it has enraptured readers across the world. I can’t remember the last time a literary novel gained such an adoring worldwide readership like this one. There was an outcry when it didn’t make the Man Booker Prize shortlist, with much of Book Twitter seeming to take the snub as a personal affront (or was that just me?). In short, Normal People is a book that is beloved. How did this quiet little book, a work of literary fiction written by a millennial woman no less, gather such an adoring fanbase?
I’ve been thinking about this all week (and not just because I’m writing an essay about Sally Rooney for uni). I remember the first time I eagerly picked up an advance copy of Normal People, about a year ago now. I had previously read and enjoyed Conversations With Friends, Rooney’s smart, sparkling debut novel, and thought that I would also enjoy this one. Normal People, however, was a book that I devoured within two days – I just fell completely in love with it. It’s a book that works on every level, but especially on the level of character – the only way you can make a familiar ‘will-they-won’t-they’ love story work is by filling it with characters that make it seem new again.
I have a thing for love stories that are crooked and bittersweet, with characters who are messy and a little bit selfish, and who don’t always act the way that you think they should. Marianne can be such a frustrating character if you judge her by the rules of a conventional love story – she does everything to push love away, and the tragedy of her story is that she fundamentally believes she isn’t worthy of it. The way in which Connell tries (and often fails) to accommodate her self-sabotaging beliefs within his own feelings for her is absolutely gutwrenching, and Sally Rooney has rendered it all with breathtaking sincerity.
These characters, these stories, feel truly real to me. It’s these kinds of books that actually show me something new about love and the way we treat the people we’re in love with. That’s exactly what I want out of a love story – for it to say out loud the things that nobody in real life seems very willing to talk about. For me and, I suspect, for thousands of readers everywhere, Normal People is that love story.
There are lots of excellent words out there written about Sally Rooney and Normal People, and I’m not expecting this post to be considered among the best of them. I just want to take this opportunity to share my love for this book with you (and hopefully encourage you to pick it up and experience it for yourself).
So, happy Normal People Day everyone. Feel free to share your own love for this book in the comments.
Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years.
This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person's life - a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us - blazingly - about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney's second novel breathes fiction with new life.
About the Contributor
Olivia Fricot is the Editor of the Booktopian Blog. After finishing a soul-crushing law degree, she decided that life was much better with one's nose in a book and quickly defected to the world of Austen and Woolf. You can usually find her reading (obviously), baking, writing questionable tweets, and completing a Master's degree in English literature. Just don't ask about her thesis. Olivia is on Twitter and Instagram @livfricot - follow at your own risk.
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