Sally Rooney entered the literary scene in 2015 with “Even if You Beat Me,” a nonfiction essay published in the Dublin Review recounting her years as a champion debater. A year later, Rooney made the jump to fiction with “Mr Salary,” a short story picked up by the literary magazine Granta and quickly shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the richest prize of its kind. In 2017 Rooney released “Conversations with Friends,” her first novel chronicling the nuanced adultery that combines and recombines a couple and a pair of best friends. Rooney’s debut was met with electric praise, awarding her comparisons to both Salinger and Joyce and landing her in the VIP zone of the literary radar. For a year, we salivated. In Aug. 2018, Rooney released her sophomore novel, “Normal People,” in her home country of Ireland, where it quickly spread like rapid fire across the globe via social media and Amazon.
In the short span of three years, Rooney has evolved from essayist to fiction writer to “the first great millennial novelist.” Sally Rooney got a New Yorker interview in January, told The Guardian that she “do(esn’t) respond to authority very well” and has a 10-minute YouTube video on writing and Marxism. She’s a veritable cultural event, heralded for her bare prose, biting irony and slow burn of love in the time of late capitalism. Just check out what happens when you search #normalpeople on Instagram.
“Normal People” drops in the States on Tuesday, Apr. 16, and The Michigan Daily Book Review is celebrating by reviewing Rooney’s fiction career, last to first. Catch “Normal People” on the 16th, “Conversations with Friends” on the 17th and “Mr Salary” on the 18th.
When I first reopened “Normal People” this past week to brainstorm this review, I was struck with a potent nostalgia. It had been three months since I’d first read Sally Rooney’s second novel, and still, there it was: a form of wistfulness about the journey of reading the book through for the first time. There was some jealousy of my past self and the first, traumatic slog through the book, too, mixed also with a bit of love for the characters in the story. This familiar nostalgia didn’t come from any one place and is maybe too difficult to interpret, but I think it speaks volumes to the real, raw power of “Normal People.”
“Normal People” is Rooney’s follow up to the equally popular “Conversations with Friends,” and her elegance continues to defy standards. Rooney’s novel is a story about contemporary love and companionship to its gut, though not love in the sense of archaic Austen or young and modern John Green. Rooney sculpts her own breed of intimate story, one maybe best paralleled with Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Like Kundera, “Normal People,” to its core is about just this — normal people.
Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Rooney’s book alters between the firsthand narratives of Connell and Marianne, beginning with their final year in high school and ending with their last in college. At the start of the book, the two begin the groundwork of a relationship just before graduating — Marianne the outcast of their high school and Connell the popular, smart guy among their peers. The two keep things secret until Connell neglects to ask Marianne to the dance, at which point she disconsolately severs contact. It sounds terribly stereotypical, and maybe even more stereotypical to say, “this version is different,” but it really is. Even from its inception, the story is carefully written. It is not penned to target a teen audience or rework an intimate love story. It is merely about two absolutely mundane characters that Rooney knows with a sacred intimacy and to whom she is allowing us access.
As Connell and Marianne enter college and their paths cross again and again, Rooney starts to bring to fruition one of the most accurate, gentle stories about the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Rooney writes brilliantly of topics emotive and familiar, studying the normal of awkward introductory sex and the strange, young space of relationships while parents are always nearby. As the story progresses, she asks readers to stare down abuse, alienation and perhaps most powerfully the universal sensation of the phasing out of one age of life and the slow entrance of another. Rooney’s storytelling is unique because it refuses the use of any avoidable images and verbosity — the text of “Normal People” is raw, left only with its familiar dialogue and straightforward chronical of action.
As the story progresses, both Connell and Marianne become nearly unrecognizable forms of the characters readers were first introduced to. As their relationship twists and develops over time, so do they — Marianne in her oscillating levels of popularity, her emotional coping and her perceptions of others; Connell in his contentment and desires towards women and his academic career. This graduation of change is portrayed subtly. Rather than revealing long passages of character thought or detail, Rooney sticks to basics and simply moves through the story. The characters become deeply identifiable to readers, not because of one explicit similarity to life, but rather from the lack thereof — Rooney’s writing pares the writing to its very bones, making character development moldable to more experiences. “Normal People” quickly becomes less about momentary details, and more about patterns over time.
When all is finished, “Normal People” speaks in the gentle voices of its characters but is overwhelming with its realistic extremity. Rooney offers one of the best depictions of 21st century love yet — its fleetingness, its complexity and its publicity. It is a devastating and hopeless and thrilling depiction. It’s unsurprising that foundations are scooping the novel up for shortlists and awards. Rooney has made normal people something to go crazy for.