By Sally Rooney
There is something about Sally Rooney’s novels that makes people embrace (and occasionally reject) it like a long-sought romantic partner. Though both her 2017 debut, “Conversations With Friends,” and her new novel, “Normal People,” are set in an exactingly depicted Dublin and West Ireland in the 2010s, her books describe the kinds of all-consuming romantic attachments that have bolstered narratives since Dido and Aeneas, or, O.K., Emma and Mr. Knightley. (There’s as wide a streak of affinity with the 19th-century novel in these books as there is with Sheila Heti.) Her characters are drawn irresistibly to one another (consistently consummating their attractions with phenomenal, heart-stopping sex), and come apart over petty misunderstandings, after which they tend to have “anxious, upsetting sex” with other people before reconnecting. Her prose, much like Salinger’s — her predecessor in philosophical post-adolescent neurosis — is sharp, dialogue-heavy and unadorned, written to be absorbed into the bloodstream quickly.
Part of the excitement of reading Rooney is seeing this old-school sensibility applied to what feel like acutely modern problems. In “Conversations,” Frances moves between an affair with a married older man and an on-again-off-again relationship with her female best friend. All four involved are self-consciously cool, progressive individuals who find themselves overwhelmed (in Frances’ case, to the point of self-harm) when pressed into action by brute desire. Rooney’s novels have the unusual power to do what realist fiction was designed to do: bring to light how our contemporaries think and act in private (which these days mostly means off the internet), and allow us to see ourselves reflected in their predicaments.
“Normal People,” even as it is almost physically impossible to stop reading once begun, feels in some ways like the slightly less impressive follow-up album by a beloved band, the “Contra” to Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, if you will. (There’s an extremely generationally accurate scene in which the central couple listen to Vampire Weekend while drinking gin and arguing, in 2012, about the Reagan administration.) It’s wonderful to hear the sound of Rooney’s voice on the page again, and the pleasures of her storytelling are even more immediate than in the first novel. But the book can also seem rushed and conventional in ways her debut did not, particularly in its final third. Much more so than in her first novel, the clarity of Rooney’s language gives way to clichés and not terribly convincing similes (“Marianne’s face looked bright like a light bulb”; “the heat beats down on the back of Connell’s neck like the feeling of human eyes staring”), as though the urgency of writing the story were so great that she was reluctant to pause to find the more perfect phrase.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of April. See the full list. ]
But that urgency is also thrilling, and there are very few contemporary writers who can pull off what Rooney accomplishes with narrative and character in this book. In chapters that alternate between two perspectives, she dramatizes, with excruciating emotional insight, the intertwined lives of Connell and Marianne, beginning with their final year of high school in the West Ireland town of Carricklea, and ending with their final year at Trinity College, Dublin. When we first meet them, Connell’s mother is working as a housekeeper for Marianne’s family, and their full set of dichotomies is quickly established: Marianne is openly brilliant, wealthy and friendless, while Connell is secretly brilliant, poor and popular. They can’t be seen together at school for fear of social opprobrium, so they begin meeting secretly to talk and have sex, discovering parts of themselves that have previously lain dormant. Though the plot devices couldn’t be more familiar — the first major rift between the couple occurs when Connell invites a popular girl to the formal dance instead of Marianne — Rooney expertly imbues this time of life with the gravity one feels in the midst of it. (In this respect her book shares a kinship with, among others, Edna O’Brien’s classic first novel, “The Country Girls,” and Elif Batuman’s recent undergraduate epic, “The Idiot.”)