Book Review: 'Normal People'

May 13, 2019


If you haven’t yet heard of Sally Rooney, you probably will soon. The Irish writer seems to be the literary phenom of the moment, after her 2017 debut novel, “Conversations With Friends,” won widespread critical and commercial acclaim.

Her newest work, “Normal People,” was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and it won the Costa Award, which recognizes books by writers based in Britain and Ireland. It finally hit American bookstores last month.

“Normal People” tells the story of Marianne and Connell, classmates in a small Irish town near Galway. Marianne’s family is wealthy, but she’s awkward and friendless. Connell comes from a working-class home – his mother works for Marianne’s family as a housecleaner – but he’s a soccer star and one of the high school’s popular kids. The two forge a friendship and eventually a romantic and sexual relationship, which they keep quiet from their classmates and the world at large.

The rest of the novel recounts the couple’s on-again-off-again relationship during the four years after high school. Both attend college in Dublin, where her social status rises while he struggles to find his place in the world. The result is a true, modern millennial love story – not a romance – that presents youthful experiences with all their requisite anxiety, angst and turmoil.

Rooney’s writing is exquisite in its simplicity, with passages like these that make you reach for your highlighter: “Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt the old beat of pleasure in his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.”

“Normal People” offers up plenty such moments. Fans of contemporary fiction in general – and coming-of-age novels in particular – will love her refreshing take on friendship, love, joy and pain. The novel will be the topic of this month’s KMUW Literary Feast, a book discussion at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the KMUW studios in Old Town. See you there.

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