Normal People, Sally Rooney's second novel, opens in 2011 in a small town in the west of Ireland, where two teenagers, improbably, hook up.
Marianne is a social pariah: She's really smart, lightly contemptuous and weird — a judgment bestowed on her by the cultural gatekeepers at her high school because "she wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn't put make-up on her face."
Connell, a football player, is also very smart, but he knows enough to turn the dimmer switch down on his intelligence, so he's popular. His mom cleans the large house that Marianne's family lives in.
Connell often picks his mom up at the end of her stint and Marianne is often sitting in the kitchen, reading The Fire Next Time or something equally challenging. They talk, they fall into bed together, they break up.
This "wash-and-repeat" romantic cycle continues far into their university years at Trinity College, Dublin. Eventually, Marianne confides in Connell that she was in a relationship with a man who beat her during sex. "It was my idea, that I wanted to submit to him," she tells Connell. "It's difficult to explain."
It's an understatement to say that, as a chronicler of youthful Irish life and love, Sally Rooney is no Maeve Binchy. In fact, Rooney is a tough girl; her papercut-sharp sensibility is much more akin to writers like Rachel Kushner, Mary Gaitskill, and the pre-Manhattan Beach Jennifer Egan. Normal People moves forward in rough fragments: Instead of chapters, increments of this story are dated and given headings that read "four months later;" "seven months later."
The great poignancy of reading Normal People derives from being totally swept along by the force of Marianne's and Connell's psychological insights into each other or events and then witnessing how the solid certainty of those insights dissolves four months later or seven months later.
For instance, at the end of high school, when an anxious Connell, in a moment of cowardice, asks another girl to the formal dance (even though he and Marianne have been secretly sleeping together for a long time) we're treated to this self-lacerating assessment by Marianne:
[Connell] didn't do anything that bad. He had never tried to delude her into thinking she was socially acceptable; she'd deluded herself. He had just been using her as a kind of private experiment, and her willingness to be used had probably shocked him. ... In a way she feels sorry for him now, because he has to live with the fact that he had sex with her, of his own free choice, and he liked it. That says more about him, the supposedly ordinary and healthy person, than it does about her.
Rooney nails the bitter smarts of a certain kind of willfully odd teenage girl; but then, three months later, the joke is on Connell when Marianne's eccentricities render her chic and sought-after at university, while his working-class earnestness is socially toxic.
Class is one of Rooney's chief concerns here, especially as Connell, who's something of a budding writer, penetrates deeper and deeper into the smug undergraduate literary culture. Here's his wry take on a reading by a visiting celebrated writer:
Connell couldn't think of any reason why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant. They were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them. ...
[The reading itself] was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.
Whoa. For those of us who've attended (or perpetrated) more than our fair share of these types of literary events, Connell's pronouncements constitute a miniature instant classic of academic farce writing. He's so intense in his disdain; but, then, he's so intense in his desire. By the end of the novel, he's seriously deciding whether or not to enter an elite MFA program.
Normal People is a nuanced and flinty love story about two young people who "get" each other, despite class differences and the interference of their own vigorous personal demons. But honestly, Sally Rooney could write a novel about bath mats and I'd still read it. She's that good and that singular a writer.