Normal People Book summary
Sally Rooney’s first novel, “Normal People,” has been lauded as a defining literary work of its era. Published in 2018, it was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize and subsequently adapted into a critically acclaimed television series on Hulu. The novel’s universal appeal lies in its nuanced exploration of contemporary life, articulated through Rooney’s masterful storytelling and eloquent prose. It delves into the intricate dynamics between Marianne and Connell, tracing their journey from a provincial Irish town to the esteemed Trinity College in Dublin. The narrative adeptly addresses contemporary issues such as toxic masculinity, capitalist anxieties, political correctness, mental health, as well as class and gender politics. Rooney’s skill in seamlessly integrating these complex themes into the narrative has been widely commended. The protagonists, while flawed, are profoundly human, often mirroring our vulnerabilities. The novel’s success is also attributed to its relatability, encapsulating the quintessential experience of modern youth - overeducated, neurotic, and hyper-self-aware. It has been heralded as the inaugural novel to authentically capture the collective precariousness of our era, be it individual, economic, or political. The novel’s triumph is a testament to Rooney’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist of the current generation, solidifying her status as a literary icon among contemporary readers.
Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron are intelligent high school students in a small Irish town, preparing for college. They’re avid readers, interested in global affairs and social justice. Marianne lives with her widowed mother and brother in a wealthy household. However, her brother, Alan, is verbally and physically abusive, and her mother sides with Alan instead of protecting Marianne. This has led Marianne to develop a low self-esteem. She is secluded and considers herself to be odd, an opinion that is shared by the majority of her peers.
Connell’s mother, Lorraine, works as a cleaner and dropped out of school when she became pregnant with Connell during her mid-teens, and she never reveals her father’s identity. Lorraine cleans the Sheridans’ house twice a week, and since she doesn’t drive, Connell picks her up, leading to frequent encounters with Marianne. Connell is self-conscious about his background, shy, struggles with articulating his thoughts, and is indecisive.
At school, Marianne is seen as a misfit due to her deliberate antisocial behavior, while Connell, being handsome and athletic, is popular despite his private insecurities. Marianne publicly ignores Connell to protect his social standing, but privately confesses to having feelings for him. Connell reciprocates her feelings but views their relationship as private, partly to safeguard his social status and partly because he shares an intimate connection with Marianne that he doesn’t fully understand.
Lorraine notices Marianne and Connell growing closer and approves of it as she likes Marianne. After Marianne and Connell start a sexual relationship, Connell gradually becomes more comfortable being seen with Marianne in public. However, their relationship abruptly ends when Connell invites a popular girl, not Marianne, to the senior dance. This infuriates Lorraine and humiliates Marianne to the point where she stops attending school. Connell feels guilty and wants to apologize to Marianne, but she ignores his attempts to reach out.
Mariane shuts him out of her life and concentrates on leading her own life, although she hears from Alan that Connell performed exceptionally well in their final examinations. They do not meet each other again until they begin attending Trinity University in Dublin, a choice that Connell had made with Marianne’s input. Ironically, Marianne’s wealthy background and intelligent nature led to her becoming a popular student at the university. Connell struggles to make friends and ends up meeting Marianne when he gets invited to a house party by a member of the debating club, who turns out to be Marianne’s boyfriend. Marianne is glad to run into Connell and she tells him that she doesn’t harbor any negative emotions for him. He welcomes her company, and she inducts him into her circle of the wealthy elites in Trinity College. They help Connell find a job, and Marianne sings his praises to all of her friends. They begin a sexual relationship, and Connell realizes that there is something sinister about the depth of devotion that Marianne has for him. He realizes that he can make her submit to any of his desires with ease, and feels afraid of her feelings for him. His insecurity about his financial conditions leads to a second breakup with Marianne.
She begins to date the son of a rich banker and Connell learns that he physically abuses her during sex. Marianne explains that she submits to him willingly and suggests to him that he should hit her. Connell struggles to understand Marianne’s feelings towards Jamie, while he begins to date an intelligent and friendly woman from the university. Connell and Marianne both win the scholarship at Dublin University, which grants Connell much-needed finances for his education. Helen is present to celebrate with Connell during his big win, and he is happy to discover that she shares a warm relationship with his mother Lorraine. Helen and Marianne struggle to get along together because Helen feels jealous of Connell’s dynamic with Marianne.
Connell travels through Europe with his roommate, Niall, and another friend. They end up staying with Marianne, Jamie, and Marianne’s friend Peggy during their return journey. During dinner, Marianne and Jamie end up having a violent argument but Connell interrupts them and takes Marianne away. She sleeps in his bed that night and tells him about her abusive family. Connell comforts her, and they end up kissing, but Marianne ends it before it progresses further. She breaks up with Jamie, which causes her to lose a lot of social capital since he begins to spread nasty rumors about her. She moves to Sweden for a year of study and gets into a relationship with Lukas, a photographer who likes to play games. He ties her up and humiliates her during the game, and she isn’t allowed to protest. However, Marianne ends the relationship when Lukas tells her that he loves her. She is disgusted that people can label such terrible things as love. Meanwhile, Connell breaks up with Helen after he learns that one of his best friends from college has committed suicide. He begins suffering from depression and seeks out therapy. He is diagnosed with severe depression, and put on medication.
Marianne and Connell begin hanging out when she’s in town, and they nearly end up making love, but miscommunication keeps driving a wedge between them. Marianne goes home and ends up having an altercation with Alan. He ends up smashing a door in her face causing her to bleed profusely. She calls Connell and he rushes to her home. He sends Marianne to the car and confronts Alan. He warns him that he will kill him if he ever harms Marianne ever again. In the car, he promises to Marianne that he will protect her and never let anyone treat her like that again. They move in together and settle into a pleasant life as Marianne begins working at a job while Connell begins taking his writing more seriously.
Connell is accepted into an illustrious writing program in New York, and he is reluctant to accept it because of what it would mean for their relationship. Marianne realizes that he has taught her how love can be good. She encourages him to take the position and he promises her that he could never love anyone like he loved her.
18th of August 2018
Faber & Faber