Sally Rooney, “Normal People” (2018) (narrated by Aoife McMahon) – The title of this work by someone who’s been proclaimed as the great millennial novelist is somewhat misleading- “Depressed Meritocrats” is more like it. But given that much of the action of the novel is motivated by the desire to appear “normal,” it makes sense. It also makes everyone involved miserable.
They also say Sally Rooney is a Marxist, and her works reflect a keen interest in class, especially in her home country of neoliberalism-ravaged Ireland. I’ve even heard reviewers complain that she’s not social realist enough for her declared politics! I didn’t see that to be the case, I think she’s doing her own thing.
In many respects this is a simple story- boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. The boy is Connell, a working-class but popular kid at his high school in rural/suburban Ireland; the girl is Marianne, whose house Connell’s mother cleans. They get together in high school but are plagued by an inability to express emotion, an incapacity made up of the quadruple whammy of neoliberal ennui, traditional working Irish male inexpressiveness, women’s low expectations in the patriarchy, and the fact that they’re teenagers. Connall doesn’t want his friends to know he’s banging Marianne, who’s an outcast for no clear reason beyond being a smart, acerbic girl.
This leads to heartbreak and a role reversal when the two get to Trinity (both are depicted as very smart). Marianne becomes a social favorite of a rich set (their families are repeatedly implicated in Ireland’s financial scandals and crashes), where Connall, a big quiet rural lad, has trouble fitting in. They flit fecklessly around various social circles and in and out of each other’s beds. Through it all, they’re aware of how little waits for them on the other side of college, though I will say, one of them being rich and both of them being successful enough to get into Trinity makes me fear less for their future than I might.
Both suffer from various emotional health issues- depression for both but especially Connell, and masochism and attachment to bad men on Marianne’s part. Both of these are depicted as exacerbated by the social structure they find themselves in, but with a reasonably light touch. Like many millennials, Rooney is plainspoken but avoids ideological didacticism. Marianne’s masochism is depicted as stemming from childhood abuse- is this kind of thing considered “problematic” or “kink-shaming” now? Either way, she has the predicament of wanting to be both understood and loved and treated poorly at the same time. Connall, bring a fairly “normal” guy, has a hard time with this. They wind up together in the end, but tenuously so.
Is this the great millennial novel? Hell if I know. Time will tell, I suppose. It’s pretty good, at least in audiobook, and well-read by actress Aoife McMahon. It feels emotionally “real” throughout, a lot more than I can say of similar middle-class-young-people novels ala Franzen and Eugenides. Something tells me, though, that we have something more, something bigger, to offer the world than tales of flat affect. ****’