Book Review — Normal People by Sally Rooney
The object of Normal People is innocuous enough. It is simply the tale of an on-again, off-again relationship between confused adolescents in a confusing world. In less adept hands, this object would have been mangled. It could have either been superficial, flighty nonsense that gawks at the apparent dysfunction of the central characters. Or it could have devolved into sentimental indulgence. This book does neither. The emotional and intellectual twists and turns within the characters are explored with the same blunt descriptiveness of 1920s Paris in a Hemingway novel. It treats a casual shared cup of coffee or a deep conversation on a road trip as earth shattering, life shaping events, as we ourselves often experience them.
It is not a single story, but rather a procession of set pieces broken up by spaces in time ranging from months, to weeks, to days that do not deviate in location or in tone within each piece. It was clearly written with television adaptation in mind. Each of these vignettes display an occurrence that is important to the central relationship, and attempts to show an evolution in the central characters that unfolds gradually yet overly swiftly over the course of the scene. The interesting bits are in the conversation and inner lives of the characters, expertly obscuring and then revealing in droplets pertinent information on the character’s viewpoint. Nothing interesting ever happens in the physical world, but in the lived experience of the characters, we see that which takes up the majority of our lived experience.
On its face, we would never see these things as particularly interesting. But the reality is that these twists that occur in our minds are a fundamental part of our experience, that we feel in a real way that rivals any external phenomenon bearing down on our senses. It took only the skill of an exceptional author to extract these experiences and present them in a way that we at once relate to and find entertaining due to that relatability. Its always amusing to see our own foibles at a distance, acted out by other people. There we can examine them without the blunt discomfort and distortion that comes from focusing that evaluation on ourselves.
Turning to one of those early experiences, one feels the anguish of Marianne at the thought of being so socially hideous that a man she desperately loved could not be bothered to publicly appear as hers, despite their intimacy behind closed doors. You also understand, though not in a way that justifies it, the central dilemma facing Connell in this arrangement, balancing this forbidden love (desired partly for that very reason) with the prerogatives of social upkeep. Although in this particular case, the result is clearly exploitative, we all make these compromises on a daily basis, and often find ourselves lacking in the self-awareness needed to notice these moral compromises.
This example illustrates the key tension that makes this novel so engaging, and a step above most of its peers. It’s the moral tension created in the audience, as we recognize ourselves in both the exploited and the exploitative to one degree or another. The stories activate our moral sense but then obscure it in the fog of circumstance, so we are left with only the lived reality to hold onto, one that simultaneously condemns and exalts us. We cannot make any judgement of the actors in that lived reality. Because once we are set to judge, more information is revealed, and we again identify with whom we were to judge. And this tension persists throughout, and keeps the reader in rapture.
Though this book offers itself superficially as a testament to the apparent detachment and spiritual isolation that are stereotypes of the millennial generation, and the most potent poisons of their relationships, it leaps from the context of its time to shine light on timeless principles of love and life. Though the form is different, the content of our experience of relationships does not differ much from Pride and Prejudice. External social forces and the intimate bond itself always operate together, sometimes in consort, sometimes in opposition, in ways we can not control and often do not understand, to produce our fate. The degree to which one outweighs the other varies across time and culture, but the two remain, always in a dance that resembles the eternal dance of courtship. A dance this book illustrates beautifully. I very highly recommend Normal People as a timeless case study of life and love.