book review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney
★★★★★
Faber & Faber (UK)

 

Engrossing, complex, and emotionally honest, Normal People is an understated powerhouse of a novel. As this book ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts it’s particularly difficult to summarize, but basically, it’s a sort-of-love-story about Connell and Marianne, two young people growing up in small town Ireland together, who both move to Dublin for university in 2011.

There isn’t much going on in this book aside from Connell and Marianne’s ‘will they/won’t they’ relationship, but I wouldn’t describe this as a romance novel as much as a novel about being human. Sally Rooney highlights with razor-sharp precision the oddities and intricacies that complicate interpersonal interactions, even between two people who love one another. This book is about miscommunication, but not miscommunication as a plot device; miscommunication as an intrinsic part of the human experience, naturally calling into question the possibility of truly knowing another person. Connell and Marianne’s inability to open up to one another is so much bigger than these two individual characters; it’s about gender roles and socioeconomic differences and power dynamics and social status and preconceived notions and projections and misinterpretations, and Rooney examines it all minutely through the lens of this one ill-fated sort-of-couple. She also has the uncanny ability to cut to the emotional core of a scene without sensationalizing, and I think that’s what strikes me as the most accomplished element of this novel.

I think this book is inevitably going to be underestimated by some because of its premise, and because of all the hyperbolic claims that Rooney is the definitive voice of her generation. But it’s a deceptively clever book; it’s perceptive where it could easily be vapid, it’s clear-eyed where it could be melodramatic, and it has more intellectual and emotional depth than anything else I’ve read recently. A bit of an unconventional choice for the Booker longlist, but it fully earned its spot in my opinion, and I’d love to see it shortlisted.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman | Everything Under
In Our Mad and Furious City | Warlight

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29 thoughts on “book review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

  1. I’m so glad that you loved this! You’re making so much progress on the longlist lately, and reviews like this make me excited to keep going. I’m kind of stuck at the moment, waiting for three titles on their way to me that just aren’t arriving, which is frustrating. But this one sounds wonderfully human and sophisticated, so I’ll probably just break down and order it now…
    Do you have any predictions for the shortlist?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been enjoying this but I’m glad to finally be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel! Only 3.5 left!

      I’ll probably do a shortlist reaction post so doing a prediction post in addition to that seemed like overkill, but I did post my predictions on Twitter:

      From a Low and Quiet Sea
      In Our Mad and Furious City
      The Overstory
      Everything Under
      Normal People
      Milkman

      I think the only long shot there is Milkman but given how unpredictable the longlist was, I wouldn’t say it’s outside the realm of possibility. I certainly hope it makes the cut anyway. I’m so excited for the announcement!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Me too! I think I’ll be able to get a lot farther between the shortlist and winner announcements, but the shortlist might influence what order I keep reading in. I’ve only read 5 so far, but I was also thinking From a Low and Quiet Sea and Everything Under from the titles I’ve read, and The Overstory based on ratings. After that it’s harder because I haven’t read enough yet. But I’ll keep an eye out for your reaction post, I’ve been loving your reviews so far and I’m still interested in reading all 13. Good luck with your last 3.5!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think the predictions I’m most confident about are all the male-authored ones: Low and Quiet Sea, Furious City, The Overstory. Between the reviews and general hype I’d assume those three are pretty safe. And Normal People’s been getting a lot of buzz too, but maybe that’s more to do with Rooney’s age than anything… I really don’t know what to think. I’m so curious to see what happens! At least we can all agree that Snap isn’t going to be anywhere near that shortlist.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Haha definitely not! I think Daisy Johnson is only one year older than Rooney too, which also impressed me. It’s such an interesting list all around, I don’t think there’s any way the shortlist can disappoint, at least.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read her first book either but it sounds amazing, and since contemporary Irish fiction is my Thing(TM) I’ve been convinced for a while that I’m going to love her. I’m so happy I did!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I missed your review! And then was a bit confused when you predicted this as I hadn’t seen your review beforehand. I am intrigued by this book and also a bit skeptical – but review has me leaning towards trying to read this at some point. It is bound to appear on the Women’s Prize longlist, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My prediction for this one was half thinking it was brilliant and half everyone claiming it was going to win. I’m very unnerved by its exclusion. I think you should read it though! I will be stunned if it doesn’t make the Women’s Prize longlist. But then again, Conversations With Friends didn’t make it, so who knows… I am very bad at predicting these things, clearly.

      Liked by 1 person

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