It is widely agreed that adolescence is a period that we would gladly never repeat. Society may glorify our school and university years, but in reality, few of us feel slim, sexy, cool, smart, popular or well-dressed enough to be living these glamorised lives that countless films, magazines and TV shows lead us to expect. So when a writer comes along who accurately depicts the torment of being a young adult, then they are worth paying attention to.
Aged 27, Sally Rooney is not much older than the characters she writes about. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends, is narrated by Frances, a student at Trinity College Dublin, where Rooney also completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees. It follows the course of her affair with an older, married man. Her second novel, Normal People, was published only a year later and shares several similarities with its predecessor. Both have Trinity students as their protagonists and both concentrate on the turbulence of youthful romantic relationships. But although Conversations with Friends is told from Frances’s single perspective, there is a wider pool of characters and intertwining relationships, including those between Frances and her ex-girlfriend, now best friend, and the wife of the man with whom Frances is having an affair. By contrast, Normal People gives the viewpoints of both Marianne and Connell, but it focuses more narrowly on their on-off relationship. Other characters are less sharply formed, often coming across as either cruel, shallow or stupid.
This is not necessarily a failing, as Rooney’s takedown of other characters is perceptive and often amusing. Take Jamie, for example, one of Marianne’s other boyfriends. He shows off by claiming that his professor wanted him to sit a scholarship exam but he was too lazy to study for them. Rooney expertly captures the arrogant pretensions many will recognise from their university days:
Jamie didn’t sit the exams because he knew he wouldn’t pass them if he did. Everyone in the room knows this also. He’s trying to brag, but he lacks the self-awareness to understand that what he’s saying is legible as bragging, and that no one believes the brag anyway.
Such small observations – like the constant but unremarked-upon presence of alcohol or Connell’s self-consciousness after receiving a compliment on his backpack – are little gems in Normal People that make Marianne’s and Connell’s university experiences utterly recognisable. But the novel also spans back to Connell’s and Marianne’s relationship before university. They both went to the same school in Carricklea, a small town in the west of Ireland. At school, Connell is popular, while Marianne is a loner and excluded by her classmates. Yet Connell develops a fascination for her, which puts him in a tricky position. He is so obsessed with what his friends think of him that when he begins having sex with Marianne in secret, he goes to considerable ends to make sure no one finds out.
The tables turn when they reach Trinity. It is now Marianne who is widely admired by her peers. Coming from a wealthier background than Connell (his mother cleans her mother’s house), she fits in more easily with the other posh university students. Connell’s sense of being out of place is another familiar experience. He describes his feeling of having ‘upgraded himself accidentally to an intellectual level far above his own’. Although he soon realises the supposed intelligence of his fellow students is only arrogant pretence, this does not make it any easier to fit in: ‘his classmates are not like him. It’s easy for them to have opinions, and to express them with confidence. They don’t worry about appearing ignorant or conceited.’
Rooney’s commentary on young people’s pretensions and insecurities adds richness to the novel’s primary romantic focus. There is an instinctive attraction between Marianne and Connell (they begin having sex together after only a few exchanges), yet they frequently misunderstand each other and the nature of their relationship. Connell is unable to see why Marianne would be upset if he took someone else to their graduation ball, while at university Marianne is reluctant to call Connell her boyfriend.
Normal People is a love story, but it is also about growing up. It portrays the wonderful experience of loving someone, the disappointment in discovering they do not understand you as you thought, but then realising this is too much to ask of anyone. In an interview with The Guardian, Rooney explained that the reason she thinks she could write so fast was because she had allowed her mind ‘to lie fallow for several years producing nothing, just kind of having experiences and thinking about them’. By experiences she did not mean going backpacking or ‘finding herself’, but having a coffee with a friend or reading a book. Rooney may still be in her twenties, but her writing is full of wisdom gathered from how we live now.
‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney is published by Faber & Faber