BuzzFeed says Sally Rooney “really captures millennial life.” The New Yorker cites her reputation as “the first great millennial novelist,” Bookforum notes her status as the “first great millennial author,” and the New York Review of Books goes straight for the “great millennial novelist,” although all three of those publications note it’s something other people are saying about her. A very Rooney-esque maneuver, really.
The Irishwoman is far from the first author under 40 to publish a book, even a very good one, so it’s hard to avoid the idea that a substantial part of Rooney’s hype accrues to the fact that she addresses the subject matter the literary establishment has traditionally associated with generational avatars: the vagaries of white heterosexual romance.
Rooney has an unmistakable knack for capturing the distinctively brittle energy of 21st century relationships. Much of her new novel, Normal People, could be described as a millennial When Harry Met Sally: we watch two central characters, college-aged for most of the book, circle around the question of whether they will ever give up and acknowledge for once and for all that they’re soulmates.
The difference between Marianne and Connell and Sally and Harry is that whereas the latter couple think that being friends requires staying out of one another’s beds, the former pair have a lot of sex — great sex, even.
It’s good for the reader as well as the fictional participants, because Rooney writes sex with taste and realism. When her characters’ clothes start to come off, we don’t hear the tawdry trumpets of a Good Part: Connell and Marianne continue their conversations. The book’s most devastating exchange, in fact, happens during coitus.
Rooney doesn’t use quotation marks, an omission that makes her prose tumble like a stream of consciousness. We’re firmly in her characters’ heads, flipping back and forth between the two in alternate sections, as they parse one another’s words and meanings.
Crucially, and humanely, both Marianne and Connell understand that they’re not trying to figure each other out so much as they’re trying to understand themselves. Although their veering in and out of coupledom turns on various vagaries of chance and communication, they ultimately know they can’t productively blame anyone but themselves for their own unhappiness.
The book’s conclusion, as understated as the rest of the story, might be interpreted as the moment when both acknowledge the status of their relationship as a decision that’s been reached. The fact that it clearly turns on psychological pain that should never have been inflicted doesn’t change the fact that the pain has been inflicted, in ways that profoundly affect both characters’ senses of themselves.
Normal People is a book about class (Marianne’s family has more money, but Connell’s has more decency) and about trauma, but most centrally it’s about intimacy. The terms of the characters’ intimacy change, as they try to figure out what kinds of close they can be to one another…or to anyone. What feels most “millennial,” and most revelatory, about the book is Rooney’s unflinching exploration of whether one’s closest life partner necessarily must be one’s primary sexual partner.
Rooney’s characters might have that debate openly, between themselves. Connell and Marianne are smart and articulate, which saves the author and her readers having to pretend that we know things the characters don’t. They’re figuring it out, and so are we.
It’s refreshing, and it’s one of the reasons the book is a paradoxical page-turner despite Rooney forsaking the kind of devices typically associated with suspense. The timeline is choppy, gulping months between chapters without putting a bow on anything or slowing down for awkward exposition. It’s as though Marianne and Connell are living in an apartment across from us, with a light that sometimes allows us to see what’s happening inside. That kind of spying can be addictive, and so is Normal People.
The title isn’t explicitly referenced until deep in the book, but a search turns up dozens of occurrences of its first word.
“This is normal to them.”
“With his friends he acts normal.”
“Act normal, will you?”
“In a panic to appear normal…”
These characters are obsessed, in a sense, with being normal. If there’s one thing we understand that they don’t, simply by virtue of being inside our own heads as well as theirs, it’s that normal is precisely what they are, and what we are, and what of course absolutely none of us are.