In desire, dual impulses: to name, speak, exclaim (I want you) and to downplay, suppress, deny (it’s all in my head). How we figure out and communicate our love, our pain, or fail to, beats at the center of Irish author Sally Rooney’s electric second novel, “Normal People.’’ The book traffics in the major and minor cataclysms in communication and reminds us how the subtlest utterances possess frightening power. Rooney shows us how what we say, and don’t, has the force of shifting tectonic plates to alter a relationship’s entire topography.
“Normal People’’ spans four years of the lives of Marianne and Connell as they finish high school and head to college in Dublin, alternating between their perspectives. Connell: well-adjusted, well-liked, an athlete, one of the biggest brains of their high school class, and son of the woman who cleans Marianne’s family’s massive house. Marianne: an outcast, a misfit, friendless, assured, and similarly big-brained. Connell can say things to Marianne that he can’t say to anyone else; Marianne names her crush on Connell almost fearlessly. And the two begin a relationship that Connell, fearing others’ judgment, wants to keep secret. Marianne obliges. The attendant pain, experienced by both in different ways, is subtle, then less so, the way aspects of our lives we think are OK, are live-with-able, turn out to be more insidious and more damaging than we can possibly anticipate.
When the pair lands at Trinity, the plot threatens to veer toward teenage rom-com: Nerd girl gets cool, and everyone sees her nontraditional beauty; popular jock finds himself flailing and unsure of who he is and where he belongs. But Rooney’s control keeps it from turning down worn roads. She makes layered, complex, ferociously intelligent characters (in this way, and in its perceptive reckoning with class, “Normal People’’ is similar to Rooney’s blazing first novel “Conversations with Friends,’’ about a young couple, two women who blur between friends and loves, and an older married straight couple they’re involved with). Marianne and Connell may be smart, but they still find themselves stumbling through the dark when it comes to understanding who they are, what they want, and what they need. “Normal People’’ is no fairy tale about the path to self-perception.
Though Connell and Marianne do try. Like her protagonists in “Conversations,’’ the pair exists in that fraught place between friendship and love, a blurred, charged realm born of intimacy, of familiarity, affection, attraction, respect. “Conversations’’ explored the complexities of these elevated states; “Normal People’’ goes darker. Connell suffers a depression that Rooney captures in its limp and deadened hopelessness. But it is Marianne’s suffering at the hands of her violent and unloving family that proves the real red meat of the book.
Just as there are dual impulses to name and deny in desire, so, too, with violence, abuse, cruelty, trauma. Rooney’s portrait of Marianne’s violent, sadistic brother, Alan, the cold flinching dread he provokes, and the distorting effects it has on Marianne, chills and destabilizes in its accuracy. Discussing her family, Marianne “oscillates between exaggerating their behavior, which makes her feel guilty, or downplaying it, which also makes her feel guilty.” To exclaim or downplay, no safe path. “I don’t even mind [the physical violence] that much,” she explains to Connell. “The psychological stuff is more demoralizing. I don’t know how to explain it, really. I know it must sound . . .” She trails off. How must it sound? Crazy? Weak? Unbelievable? Ridiculous? Too much for another to hold or understand? She can’t conceive of how it might sound to someone else, because she has never uttered it to herself. “There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love.”
What’s love supposed to feel like? And the harder question: What’s it supposed to feel like to be loved? Marianne and Connell tumble and grope their way toward answers, and find how the questions intersect with the ongoing job of knowing oneself, and the exquisite, confusing place where boundaries of friendship dissolve and something else arises that looks like love. With intelligence and heat, Rooney reveals the myth of normal people: There’s no such thing. She shows us how strange we are, how isolated, how confused, how alone with our wounds and pain, and how it’s this that joins us, makes us normal. And what a rare, beautiful thing to find someone who can, even just for moments, make us feel safe in our strangeness, and less alone.
By Sally Rooney
Hogarth, 266 pp., $26
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Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.