“She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life”
Sally Rooney’s novel ‘Normal People’ won the Costa Novel Award in 2018, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and was announced as Waterstones’ Book of the Year. That green cover can be seen littering Instagram accounts and bookshop windows; it is everywhere, and quite rightly so. Although I arrived quite late to the party, having read Rooney’s novel, I can understand why it has continued to be a stand out success in 2019.
There are many reasons for this, but the aspect of the novel that surprised me most was its simplicity. The plot, narration, chronology and its open ending give it a touch of realism. So much so that when reading it I felt as though I was listening to a friend recount a story about someone they were seeing. It is an incredibly relatable situation, and, dare I say it, a ‘normal’ situation about ‘normal’ people.
However, its simplicity is not a downfall and does not make the novel mundane or overdone. Rather, it makes the novel an addictive read. Potentially this is because Rooney develops a style akin to gossip which affords a significant amount of interest in the characters’ relationship. We view intersecting moments of each character’s life from an impartial perspective. This avoids the reader getting too emotionally invested in the characters personal motivations and simply just explains the situation with a degree of bluntness. The purpose of this is to distance the reader from the immediate action, whilst simultaneously compelling us to read on, as though we are overhearing or witnessing the events from afar.
However, despite this observer vantage point, there are moments when you want to shake the protagonists and force them to admit what they are feeling or get angry at one of them because of their actions. Yet, Rooney makes sure that every careless action is underpinned by an appreciation that these actions stem from underlying causes. In fact, revealing the crux of Marianne’s despondency or Connell’s anxiety is a heart-warming moment. Rooney doesn’t build up an overall sense of frustration towards the characters in her dramatic irony, but rather an understanding that sometimes things go unsaid and things don’t work out. I didn’t find myself rooting for the protagonists to get together, or for one to come out better than the other, in fact, a happily ever after ending would have undermined the entire plotline. The anti-climactic ending was not bitter, it simply provided a stamp of realism.
Another reason for its continued success could be the plot’s generalisability. A novel depicting the relationship between two teenagers as their paths verge and cross throughout their formative adult years runs the risk of bordering on YA fiction. However, Rooney’s simple narrative style and realism open it up to wider genre classification. The themes of unrequited feelings, the brutality of timing, the need to have someone ‘there’ and the ways in which relationships can be picked up and dropped remain universal to any age, not just teens and adults.
I do think that depicting realistic relationships and how they often don’t work out is an interesting storyline. We are so used to expecting a happy ending that the ending really stood out for me. Whether Connell and Marianne will stay together or even cross paths in the future is left to the reader’s imagination. However, what I found most interesting was that either outcome didn’t provoke an emotional response in me. Whether they end up together or not was not the focus of the novel, but rather the novel hinges on an emphasis that our relationships with people can be transitory, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Ultimately, ‘Normal People’ is a depiction of broken people trying to navigate fixing themselves via others and making a mess of it along the way. Their paths converge and diverge and will continue to do so long after the final page. It is about normal people, normal lives, normal relationships and how normal life gets in the way. It is all perfectly normal, yet compellingly readable.