“Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”
It is ironic, that the only time this book has something interesting or original to say, is when it is criticizing itself. Normal People so desperately wants to be about “edgy” people who are unlike others, and who do and say vulgar and shocking things. Its characters try to convince themselves (and us), that they are unique and different from those around them, when in fact, they couldn’t be more ordinary.
Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are two white college students who attend university in Dublin for most of the novel. Marianne’s family is rich, and Connell’s is working class (he is raised by a single mother who cleans Marianne’s house), though the novel doesn’t really explores what it means to come from a lower socioeconomic status.
In high school, Connell’s humble background doesn’t have much of an impact on his daily life; rather, the focus is on his social status within the school- he is a star football player and popular- his lack of wealth is irrelevant. Later, when Connell goes to college, his comparative poverty in regards to the other students is briefly mentioned, but it is never truly presented as a challenge, nor is it given much depth. With a little hand-waving, money becomes a non-issue, and Connell’s initial feelings of being an outsider among a crowd of wealthy are explained under the guise that nobody understands him, except for Marianne.
Marianne herself is less of a character and more of a series of clichés. She is strange and Not Like Other Girls in high school; later, at university, she is intense and damaged. The novel tentatively touches on darker aspects of Marianne’s life, but is not truly concerned with fleshing out these parts of her story- instead, Rooney prefers to flit from one trauma to the next without any real resolution.
The success of Normal People hinges on how much you empathize with Connell and Marianne, and whether you believe in their romance or not. Unfortunately, the novel fails on both counts. Connell and Marianne are both ordinary and pretentious, but the novel is steadfast in its belief that they are unique and extraordinary in a world populated by “normal people.” This is the only explanation given to why the pair is originally drawn to one another in high school, and why they keep coming back to one another throughout the years. Perhaps it is because they are both equally insufferable.
This is a novel for and about people who think of themselves as “intellectuals,” who spend their time discussing politics as if it were theoretical, who talk about Proust and Kafka as though they are obscure writers, and who scoff at those that do not share these interests. It is a novel for privileged, educated liberals to read about “damaged poor people” (this is in quotes because neither Connell or Marianne is as dark as the book imagines them to be, nor is any character anything less than middle-class), so as to proclaim empathy and knowledge about the experiences of other socioeconomic backgrounds.
Normal People isn’t a novel so much as it is a 266 page warning on the dangers of living a life without therapy, when therapy is desperately needed.