For me, Normal People wasn’t immediately absorbing in the way that Conversations with Friends was—maybe partly because of the third-person narration of this book as opposed to the first-person narration of that one—but once I got into the story, I didn’t want to put it down, even as some of the narrative choices made me squirm. The chapters of Normal People alternate between focusing on Marianne and Connell, schoolmates from a small town in the west of Ireland who both go to Trinity in Dublin for university. Though their social lives in high school don’t overlap (by which I really mean: Connell has a social life; Marianne is an outcast) and they’re from different backgrounds (Connell is the kid of a single mother who cleans for a living; Marianne’s family has money—and Connell’s mom cleans their house) they end up becoming friends, and then end up having sex, though Connell makes a point of not wanting anyone at school to know. Their relationship ends up being an on-and-off thing that continues while they’re at Trinity; they keep miscommunicating and messing up, but they also keep finding themselves drawn to each other. The book captures the intensity of their connection really well, the way that their private interactions let them make a separate space for themselves, away from everyone else, but also how that separateness can cause problems. (Early in the book, there’s this: “Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him” – and I think the narrative explores the appeal of and the problems with that.) On the subject of narrative choices that made me squirm, I’ll just say that I’m tired of the novelistic trope of female submission being tied to a traumatic family life and/or deep insecurity. But I do really like Rooney’s prose style, in passages like this:

In the afternoon it started snowing, thick gray flakes that fluttered past the windows and melted on the gravel. Everything looked and felt sensuous: the stale smell of classrooms, the tinny intercom bell that sounded between lessons, the dark austere trees that stood like apparitions around the basketball court. The slow routine work of copying out notes in different-colored pens on fresh blue-and-white lined paper. (17)

Or this:

Dublin is extraordinarily beautiful to her in wet weather, the way gray stone darkens to black, and rain moves over the grass and whispers on slick roof tiles. Raincoats glistening in the undersea color of street lamps. Rain silver as loose change in the glare of traffic. (261)

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