Ok, yes, I finally caved to the hoards of Glossier-wearing, Man Repeller-obsessed NYC cool girls and picked up Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel, Normal People. Don’t worry, I didn’t buy it just for the gram (but I did post a picture of it, in case you’re curious), I bought it for “research,” which is code for “Dad, I really want to visit Ireland.” Plus, when an author is called “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” I feel an obligation, as a member of said generation, to give it a chance.
When Rooney’s editor called her “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” I think they were referring to the fact that reading Salinger feels like a status symbol. It says, “See? I’m cultured. I only checked SparkNotes once during 10th grade English.” I’ve only read Nine Stories and my biggest claim to fame is that he mentioned my school by name in Catcher in the Rye. I’m not any sort of literary expert, but I think calling people phonies and posting your vacation read on Instagram is pretty much the same thing.
Here’s the best part: Rooney’s characters mock this cultural charade in their very book. When discussing book readings, protagonist Connell says, “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” I have a feeling he and Holden would be two peas in a pod.
Despite its hype, I loved Normal People. Rooney is an incredibly talented writer. I found myself underlining almost everything she wrote– from descriptions of cherry trees to a quote about grief that I just can’t get out of my head.
“If people appeared to behave pointlessly in grief, it was only because human life was pointless, and this was the truth that grief revealed.”
Rooney’s writing stood out to me because I’ve never read anything like it. She wrote from inside her characters’ head so well that I felt claustrophobic from the intimacy. She lets her characters think about things that don’t feel relevant because that’s how real people think. The whole story feels like a published diary.
But, that’s not what I want to talk about in this review. I want to come back to the tension within social classes. Normal People uses the classic will-they-won’t-they romance novel structure to discuss the class differences between its two protagonists, Connell and Marianne. The story introduces the conflict when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne’s house, where she works as a housekeeper. Rooney takes the rest of the novel to explain how this scene resonates with the pair, rippling through their lives at unexpected moments. What I love most about Normal People is that while this plays out between the pages, the same struggle is happening in our world.
In an interview, Rooney, a socialist, said she did not like landlords reading her work. She continues, “There is a part of me that will never be happy knowing that I am just writing entertainment, making decorative aesthetic objects at a time of historical crisis.” This relationship between privileged readers, displaying how cultured they are, Rooney denouncing said readers, and the mirror-image class struggle unfolding in the book is one I don’t feel intelligent enough to speak on. But, I can appreciate the irony and complexity behind it and can only hope someone else will write a review explaining it to me.