Older people often talk about young love with misty-eyed fondness, as if they wish they could experience it anew. But Sally Rooney reminds us of the dark side of first love in her latest novel, “Normal People.”
In the book, Marianne and Connell are in high school in a small town in Ireland when they become involved. Much about their relationship is unhealthy. For one, it’s a secret. Connell is popular; Marianne is not. Given their difference in status, they don’t even discuss whether they should hide their relationship. They both assume there’s no way they could be seen in public without Connell’s social status plummeting.
Social status, class and their intersection are topics Rooney is unafraid to tackle. Connell’s mother is Marianne’s family’s housekeeper. This might have mattered in another novel, but by and large class issues get sidestepped, at least until Connell and Marianne enter university at Trinity College in Dublin. Trinity is an elite and elitist institution, and all of a sudden Marianne—so dismally unpopular in high school—fits in. Instead it is Connell who must scramble to keep pace with snobby students who make fun of his rural Irish accent.
Yet “Normal People” is less about class and status than it is about two people in love and the damage they unwittingly inflict on each other. There’s a lot of pain in Marianne and Connell’s love, even putting aside Marianne’s predilection for masochism. Connell takes advantage of Marianne early on in their relationship, but then she does the same to him later on. So much is left unsaid between them; so many grievances accumulate. Reading “Normal People” made me flinch more than once. Normal people are cruel, and most often they don’t even know it.
The author, Sally Rooney, is young, only 28 years old. She is a staggeringly talented writer who observes with the social acuity of Jane Austen, while using an economy of language more reminiscent of J. D. Salinger. A dark wit runs through this book. At the beginning of “Normal People,” a teenage Marianne is studying herself in the mirror. Rooney writes, “Her face lacks definition around the cheek and jaw. It’s a face like a piece of technology, and her two eyes are cursors blinking. Or it’s reminiscent of the moon reflected in something, wobbly and oblique. It expresses everything all at once, which is the same as expressing nothing.”
Rooney likes to play with opposites like “everything” and “nothing.” Marianne and Connell’s relationship through the end of high school and into college contains so many opposites that it becomes dizzying. One wonders how these two can keep making the same mistakes with each other, but this is, after all, first love, embarked on by people who are actually very far from normal. In Rooney’s world, the only thing that’s “normal” is that no one is.
I can’t wait to see where Sally Rooney takes her talent. Read “Normal People,” and in 20 years when Rooney is one of the world’s greatest novelists, you’ll be able to say, “I read her when.”
Reviewer Sarah Piazza is a teacher's assistant in a 2nd grade classroom at Park Forest Elementary.