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by Sally Rooney
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May the Gods strike me down mid-sentence but... I'm just not sure I liked this.
I found Rooney's debut novel, Conversations with Friends, captivating and endlessly amusing, so much so that I gave it one of my coveted 5-star reviews. Normal People feels like a shallow retread of the same ground, with a literary style that turned out to be not something the author created for that deeply ironic, often epistolary novel, but in fact merely her way of writing books. And the bloom is, for this reader, off the rose. I usually annotate books fairly thoroughly; here I only made one note - and that was just to investigate where I can buy chlorophyll chewing gum!
Rooney is still fantastic at much of what she does; she vividly captures moments of pathos and bathos jammed together, our subtle self-delusions to which Time gradually draws our attention, and a certain detached air with which the characters regard their own lives. Both Marianne and Connell have moments of compelling insight, although I would say only the former truly emerges as a fully-realised character. But I felt more and more that the relationship didn't deserve this level of interrogation. I don't wish to commit the grievous sin of comparing a writer's second novel to their first - I really don't - yet much of the playful irony and rich naivete of Conversations' main characters has been lost and replaced by an endless yearning that didn't always feel earned by the context of these two young attractive people. Moreso the supporting characters felt empty (poor, neglected Helen), without the shading and authorial question marks found in the earlier novel. I'm also less convinced - still convinced but only just so - of Rooney's penchant for avoiding quotation marks. In an otherwise typographically standard novel, is it well-motivated? (And, while I enjoy Rooney's heightened dialogue and her self-consciously intelligent characters, I wasn't fully convinced by some of the subsidiary dialogue. Would a highschool student really call something "awfully fucking gay?" I accept that some uneducated kids ten years ago still used the word "gay" as a generic term for something rubbish, but I so strongly associate "awfully" with the kind of prep-school educated classes that the two words strike my ear unnaturally when employed in the one phrase.)
Most disappointingly for me, however, was that I never warmed to the narrative conceit of cutting to various moments in the characters' relationship. To be honest, it comes dangerously close to cheating. Rooney will skip ahead four months, surprising us with Connell and Marianne in a new status quo, only to spend half the chapter giving us flashbacks to what occurred during those four months. As the seasoned reader, I would like to do some of the work for myself; as the novelist, I would like Rooney to create some shadows, some lacunae in the text, with which the reader can do battle. Instead, the time-jumps simply feel like a "hook" for reviewers to discuss the work, creating an aura of structure yet explicitly revealing all that has taken place in the intervening weeks and months.
Still, no-one can deny the splash this novel has made, and it's damned impressive that Rooney has had two such well-received books before the age of 30. It's easy to understand why so many people enjoy her works. Reading her novels, I feel the same sense of generational frisson that I find when watching a TV series like Girls or Broad City: an ecstatic realisation that my generation are at last being represented accurately. No longer forced, as we have been in novels and films created by older artists, to awkwardly re-enact our parents' cultural, sexual, and social mores, but instead freed to be ourselves. That was almost worth the price of admission. Rooney is a writer to watch, and one whose next novel I will keenly await.
It's a contemporary novel and it's titled "Normal People", so you'll forgive me for assuming that this one would be full of people doing horribly cruel things to each other. Perhaps I shouldn't have feared the worst. Sally Rooney seems to belong to the school of strong minimalism embodied by Elizabeth Strout, whose novels employ a bare-bones attitude towards prose to describe the inner lives of their characters with maximum impact. Less-is-more writing has often meant macho male writers trying to impress upon the reader exactly how bleak and lonely life can be, so it's interesting to see it used for other ends. At the same time, the very intensity of the feelings on display here will mean that "Normal People" will probably be an uncomfortable read for many. Even so, I think it works.
Rooney's commitment to minimalism also allows her to limit her novel's scope in such a way that it allows a relatively uneventful coming-of-age narrative -- first loves, high school friends, or lack thereof, alcohol, young hope and sadness and all that -- seem monumentally important. Rooney seems intent on reminding her adult readers the terrible emotional force that high-school experiences, both good and bad, can have. It's a point that most adult readers -- and many adult authors -- tend to gloss over, but Rooney seems to want to remind her audience how hard things can hit us during our teenage years without sinking into the melodrama she describes. We hear about social hierarchies, slights, friendships and sexual exploration: the author takes all of this just as seriously as her characters do. While Connell often seems like something of an unknown quantity to himself during much of the novel, readers may also find it difficult to read about Marianne's simultaneous emotional detachment and vulnerability. The fact that Rooney treats these as aspects of her character instead of mere psychological dysfunctions is also a credit to her skills as a writer. And watching Marianne find new uses for these feelings as she grows up is both heartwarming and a particularly subtle example of character development. It's obvious that Rooney spent an awful long time thinking about Connell and Marianne and that she knows them intimately.
While this is a coming-of-age novel, there are lots of things about its two main characters that don't change: in many ways, Connell and Marianne are who they are from the very first page. But although their perspectives are limited by their youth and their rural upbringing, they're aware that there are some decisions -- where to go to college, whom to keep as a friend -- that have real consequences. While these plot points are decisive, I rather liked the more subtle way that the author dealt with class. It isn't presented here as merely question that affects social interaction or personal habits -- everyone, in fact, gets along pretty well, and Marianne herself comes from the upper class but is completely ostracized at school. Class in "Normal People" is a gentle force that shapes lives in a way that its characters can barely perceive. It affects difficult it is to get an easy job, who you might meet at an after work get-together, how much of yourself you invest in writing and literature. It shapes lives, even if nobody here ever uses the expression "one does." I found this a very accurate twenty-first century way to talk about economic inequality, and wondered if it was a pointed response to those hundreds of English novels where every phrase or interaction seems be somehow coded by the class system.
Lastly, I was surprised to learn that Hulu had made this one into a miniseries. It's a relatively short, extremely focused book, and while you can't say that it's one of those novels where nothing really happens, I would assume that its description of its main characters' inner lives would play better on the page than in front of a camera. Still, they managed to get twelve episodes out of it. I really can't imagine how.
Connell and Marianne are two introverted, socially stunted 18 year olds when the story begins and they don’t get much better by the end of the story. That being said, this is an amazing story about two kids becoming adults and trying to figure out their friendship.
[T]he idealized reading experience Rooney casts for her young writer is a magnetic mingling of literary minds that sharpens an intelligence capable not merely of imagining others but of imagining how to be close to them, even how to live with the responsibility of their happiness and dreams.
[U]pon critical reflection, the novel’s territory comes to seem like more fog than not. Which is to say: it’s a novel about university life, but without collegiate descriptions or interactions with professors or references to intellectual histories or texts; about growing up, but without any adults [. . .]; about Ireland, but without any sense of place, national history, or even physical description (if Joyce wrote Ulysses in order that Dublin might be reconstructed brick by brick, you’d be hard pressed to even break ground using Normal People); about Connell becoming a writer, but without any meaningful access to his interior development, or any sense conveyed of how his creative “passion” inflects his life; and, finally, about Marianne and Connell’s intertwined fate where we are only intermittently given access to sustained moments of intimacy.
Rooney's slivers of insight into how Marianne and Connell wrestle with their emotions and question their identity in the process made it one of the most realistic portrayals of young love I've read. Their relationship is rife with mistakes, misunderstandings, and missed chances that could be simplified if only they communicated and didn't subconsciously suppress their feelings, as millennials are wont to do.
Here, youth, love and cowardice are unavoidably intertwined, distilled into a novel that demands to be read compulsively, in one sitting.
[W]hile Rooney may write about apparent aimlessness and all the distractions of our age, her novels are laser-focused and word-perfect. They build power by a steady accretion of often simple declarative sentences that track minuscule shifts in feelings.
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"At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He's popular and well-adjusted, star of the school football team, while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her job at Marianne's house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers--one they are determined to conceal. A year later, they're both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other" --
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)823.92Literature English & Old English literatures English fiction Modern Period 2000-
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They are very similar books.. they have the same characters with different names. They have the same problems.
These books pretend to be deep but so shallow there is nothing under the surface. Mental health issues and trauma are used like romantic set dressing, and I think that's irresponsible bordering on offensive.
Marriane's background of privileges but an abusive family, and the trauma that leads her into toxic relationships, is just for the aesthetic. She is another white, thin, pretty girl with "troubles" .. just like the ones in Conversations With Friends.
Connell is handsome but also intelligent and sensitive (he treats her like shit but he feels SO BAD about it). He suffers from anxiety and depression but again this is just used as a device to keep them apart rather than being explored in any meaningful way.
The worst part of this book however is when they break up for absolutely no reason other than neither of them thought to have an actual conversion. That part made me want to throw my kindle across the room.
As much as I did hate this book... I did actually finish reading it and at times I was quite gripped by the story. Sally Rooney is a good writer. She can structure a good story, and she's very easy to read. It's just the subjects of her books are insufferable and have no depth.
I really don't know why she gets so hyped. But then again, I am 34... I think if I had read this when I was 18-23 I would probably have loved it and not seen an issue with her use of mental health issues as devices. ( )