The novel can do so many things, which may be why people love to decree what it ought to do: stick to realism, wrestle with Big Ideas, break with narrative customs (or not be so experimental), or try to be less like fiction and more like something else—journalism, say, or a diary. All of this intellectual sauce has been ladled so thickly over the novel that it’s difficult to make out the shape of its much less grandiose origin, the thing the novel has always done and does better than any other medium on Earth: tell a story about how people decide whom to love and what they do about it. The eternal appeal of this foundation explains why Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are as much a pleasure to read now as they were 150 years ago.
About halfway through Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, I realized I was enjoying the book in almost exactly the same way—fully absorbed, gobbling it down in long, lolling sessions on the sofa—that I’d savored a Trollope novel I read a few months ago. Normal People describes how Marianne, a teenager living in a provincial Irish town, becomes involved with Connell, the son of the woman who cleans her family’s house. Despite the differences in their families’ economic status, he’s popular at school and she is not. He’s a soccer player and handsome, both qualities alluring enough to obscure the fact that he’s bookish and quiet: “There was never any need to introduce himself or create impressions about his personality,” Connell thinks, looking back on this period of his life. “If anything, his personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others, rather than anything he individually did or produced.” Marianne, on the other hand, “exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels.”
Almost without Connell willing it, he drifts into a surprisingly passionate affair with Marianne. He insists that they keep this a secret from everyone they know, and she complies, only breaking with him when he asks another girl to “the Debs” (which I’m guessing is the Irish equivalent of the prom). But before that happens, she persuades him to apply to Trinity College in Dublin, where they both end up after graduation. At college, Marianne is the popular one, a chic, urbane intellectual and accomplished flirt. Connell, who has the wrong accent and can’t afford the right clothes, finds it almost impossible to fit in among his middle-class schoolmates, many of whom dismiss him as a “culchie” (hick). With the polarity of their status imbalance reversed, the pair pick up their affair again, then separate over a misunderstanding, then get back together, then split, and so on. As unpromising as this may sound as a premise, Rooney’s execution is completely engrossing.
Rooney’s first novel, Conversations With Friends, had, as its central character, a bisexual woman in her 20s who has an affair with an older, married man, much of which is facilitated by text messaging and the internet. As a result, Rooney was heralded as the bard of millennial fiction, a crafter of “mild and tender portraits of Irish college students in the recent present,” and Conversations With Friends a “new kind of adultery novel.” With Normal People, which is set during a four-year period in the early 2010s, Rooney avoids any element that would suggest the bleeding edge of the present moment. Neither Connell nor Marianne seems to have any interest in social media, and both are very standard-issue heterosexual. As with the characters in Conversations, their relationship takes place in a society ostensibly without restrictions and prohibitions, but actually governed by forces almost as implacable as the elaborate Victorian mores in that Trollope novel. Connell and Marianne are not free, and Normal People becomes a tender, bruised meditation on how two people can keep miring themselves in misery even when happiness is within their reach.
Although Rooney can turn a fine simile when she pleases (“He carried the secret around like something large and hot, like an overfull tray of hot drinks that he had to carry everywhere and never spill”), her prose style shuns most self-conscious displays of beauty. At times it reads like a report and at others like casual conversation: “She wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face. People have said she doesn’t shave her legs or anything.” From her serenely omniscient authorial perch, she has no evident interest in questioning the reliability of narration or entertaining the possibility that the same event can be radically different depending on the perspective from which it’s viewed. Never does the reader doubt that everything she tells us is the truth, or that the truth is knowable.
In this respect, as in so many others, Rooney is an old-fashioned novelist. Connell and Marianne exchange a lot of emails, as 19th-century lovers traded daily letters. And while her authorial voice is unflappably straightforward, the characters in Normal People are far from numbed out in the grand tradition of enfant terrible youth novelists like Bret Easton Ellis or Tao Lin. They suffer and rejoice keenly, although Marianne and Connell mostly suffer. Marianne comes from an emotionally and physically abusive family, and when Rooney chooses to clarify just how bad it is for her at home, the cool way she describes her mother’s attitude has an effect like the striking of a cosmic gavel: “Denise decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression toward Marianne as a way of expressing themselves. As a child Marianne resisted, but now she simply detaches, as if it isn’t of any interest to her, which in a way it isn’t. Denise considers this a symptom of her daughter’s frigid and unlovable personality. She believes Marianne lacks ‘warmth,’ by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.” Even when the stakes are lower, Rooney can be more sharply barbed than she’s given credit for: “People in Dublin often mention the west of Ireland in this strange tone of voice, as if it’s a foreign country, but one they consider themselves very knowledgeable about.”
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The other thing that makes Rooney old-fashioned is that she believes in true love, even if her lovers lack the vocabulary or even the conceptual framework to recognize this is what they have together. It’s obvious to the reader that these two must be together, and the desire to see them figure that out and make it happen provides all the momentum Normal People needs. I have happily sailed through hundreds of pages of Victorian prose on the same fuel. Marianne, maimed by her loveless childhood, indulges in masochistic liaisons with a series of creeps. Connell, who can’t bring himself to hurt her even when she asks him to, manages a few “normal” relationships, but they pale in comparison. To be normal, in his eyes, is to “conceal the parts of himself that he found shameful and confusing. It was Marianne who had shown him other things were possible. Life was different after that.”
Nowhere does Connell sound more like a millennial than when he marvels over the unshareability of their bond: “The intensity of the privacy between them is very severe, pressing in on him with an almost physical pressure on his face and body.” This striking observation about what makes their love transcendent is the freshest in this remarkably timeless novel. True love is what admits no spectators and permits no display, a thing so precious and rare we’ve almost forgotten that it exists.