Alright. Let’s kick off 2020 with a bang. First book of the year was Normal People from Sally Rooney and it was terrible. I cannot believe I’ve heard so much about it and the TV is getting all this hype. It was not a good book. Which I feel bad about saying. I imagine Rooney poured herself into this book. But it was bad on all fronts and I promised to always be honest.
Let me explain. I had seen the hype. Had read the feature about the show in Vanity Fair and said, lemme read this before the show comes out. I knew Rooney was a young Irish author and I love supporting a good young female author. Got it at a used bookstore (thank the Lord it was cheap). Read it in one day. Was annoyed that my first read of the year was so bad.
But then I remembered that means things can only go up!
Normal People is being sold as a coming of age story. It is not. I would argue it isn’t a coming of age story because it’s missing the classic elements, namely, growth. I don’t know what I’d say it was instead. Tragic aesthetic romance?
It does start with our two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, as high school students. She’s rich but regarded as ‘the weird girl’ at school and her family is the worst. Connell is solidly middle class, his mom cleans Marianne’s house. But she’s warm and loving. Connell is also a cool popular guy at school.
So when he starts putting the moves on her, Marianne (knowing it is the only way it will happen) tells Connell they can date in secret. But since he treats her like complete trash, it means they just hook up secretly. His mom calls him out for being an ahole. Then, he takes another girl to the dance and Marianne doesn’t go to school or talk to him again.
Until of course, they run into each other at a party in college. At this point Connell learns everyone knew they’d been hooking up and it wasn’t a big deal. At which time he’s like oh snap, we could have been together at school, I can’t believe I broke it off and no one even cared. Let’s note here, he isn’t sorry he acted like a jerk. He’s sorry he wasn’t more open because have done it and kept his status.
But the tables have turned in college. He’s the outsider, lone wolf and she’s the bright shinning star of the cool kids. In fact, her boyfriend is the one hosting the party. She’s suddenly very uncaring of the opinions of others and is the life of the party. Ok, sure. Let’s say I buy it.
What follows is their on again, off again relationships that spans YEARS. Like, so long.He can’t communicate, she keeps dating jerks when she’s not with him. She blames her family, he blames her. It’s a mess.
And unfortunately, that’s it. They never learn, they never grow, they just keep doing the same thing forever. And not in a Fitzgerald way; in a maybe Rooney didn’t know how to develop character way. Yeah they’re both ‘cool,’ partying and traveling and whatever, but at the end they could have still been in high school. But I don’t think that was intentional. I think it was just a total lack of development. Connell stays an ahole, Marianne can’t take ownership of her life.
Another piece of the story I’ll use as evidence to this point are the side and secondary characters. They’re wildly two dimensional. And what we do actually get from them is super cliche. The awful bullying older brother, the absent mother, the jealous petty friend, the grungy sleazy artist, the snobby rich girl. Ugh. It’s so boring. Also the writing is rough.