You’re in so much pain you pass out. Before you collapse, you’re pondering your unearned cultural privilege and reductive iteration of gender theory. Meet Frances: communist, poet, and narrator of Sally Rooney’s coming-of-age debut set in post-crash Dublin.
Frances and BFF Bobbi study at the elite Trinity College. They encounter 30-something photojournalist Melissa, who introduces them to her actor husband Nick and their arty social set.
While Bobbi gets cliquey with Melissa, Frances has a desultory affair with the handsome yet passive Nick, who suffered a breakdown.
Before college, the girls attended high school together, where Bobbi scrawled “fuck the patriarchy” on a wall near an image of a crucifix. (She’s a rich anarchist who browbeats her fellow students with her “remorseless intelligence”.)
When not joining Bobbi in putting the world to rights on everything from gender roles to capitalism and police brutality, Frances self-harms, and mops up after her violent alcoholic dad. Bobbi ‘compliments’ her by saying she doesn’t have a “real personality”.
Frances has insecurities about her looks and working-class background, but consoles herself she’s smarter than other people. “I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me…” she daydreams, leafing through A Critique of Postcolonial Reason.
It would be OK if Friends were a biting Millennial satire. But it’s as earnest as its characters, and like being battered round the head with that copy of Postcolonial Reason.
I can see why it would appeal to young female readers who identify with Frances’ self-esteem woes. It’s much, much darker though – in terms of mental health – and full of doctorate level gobbledygook. Hardly the witty, sparkling delight people have been cooing over.
Normal People’s third person narrative is shared between Marianne and Connell.
Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s rich family. At school, he’s a popular soccer player, while Marianne is an outcast. Terrified of what other people think, he ignores her, setting up a tortured on/off romance.
They leave small-town Ireland for Trinity College, where (like Frances and Bobbi) they’re the two smartest people enrolled. Aspiring writer Connell is further alienated by his working-class background, and suffers a breakdown.
Marianne revels in her isolated perch, with the scholarship exams a matter of needing her “superior intellect to be affirmed in public.” In another Friends retread, she’s beaten at home, this time by a brother.
During an on-again phase (and in an echo of Frances and Nick) Marianne (who feels herself “degenerating, moving further and further from wholesomeness, becoming something unrecognisably debased”) asks an uncomfortable Connell to hurt her during sex.
Described as a ‘modern love story’, it puts you through the wringer: depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, domestic violence, abusive boyfriends, death, predatory schoolteachers, BDSM. If this is a modern love story, do count me out.
Rooney again nails Millennial hangups, and doesn’t challenge them. She’s a young voice emerging ahead of the pack, pale and interesting in interviews, so smart you can barely understand her.
13 thoughts on “Book reviews Sally Rooney – NORMAL PEOPLE are overrated”
Hello Everyone! I’ve just finished watching “Normal People” and – like you – am thinking “What the ……?!” I have the book on my Kindle (for ages) but haven’t read it – and I’m not sure I will now.
I really don’t get it. I’m Irish born-and-bred and absolutely NONE of my friends – nor me for that matter – had/have lives like that. And, boy, am I grateful for that. I’m wondering if Ireland’s young people really have become so hideous? I sincerely hope not. Totally cringeworthy stuff from Rooney.
Hi Anna! I read a fun review of the series: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/05/sally-rooney-normal-people-hulu-bbc-soap-opera
I didn’t get it at all. Kept waiting for something to happen and nothing ever did. Was planning to share with my teenaged daughter, will spare her!
I expected more from Conversations, as one of my favourite Booktubers loved it.
Great to see another reader who thinks this is overrated. It’s annoying how much this author is pushed by the media when the books are nothing special and quite problematic. Hello, by the way – I have found your blog via The Orangutan Librarian 🙂
And so many people on Instagram etc love her too. Hello back! 😀
Yes I wonder if some people are just following the trend for certain books and authors, as the same ones are everywhere.
Now I’m thinking I might have wasted my money buying this book. I rarely fall for hyped books but I was in one of those ‘can’t leave the shop without a book’ moods……
I think I’m in the minority though – Rooney definitely has her fans.
She does indeed.
Oh my goodness- I *love* these reviews!!! I read conversations with friends recently and you nailed it so much better than I ever could! I did not get the hype around that book at all. I could not understand why I was supposed to be rooting for these catastrophically destructive people who I was TOLD (not shown) were super smart. I really agree that it could have worked if it was millennial satire- alas it took itself too seriously and like you said ended up being complete gobbledygook. I figure that people will only like it if it ticks some confirmation bias checklist off in their head (sorry, that was probably a little harsh, but like I said I really don’t get the hype!!!) It sounds like normal people was in the exact same vein- and I have zero intention of reading it after how much I disliked conversation with friends. Also I absolutely love that line “so smart you can barely understand her”- LOL! Such a brilliant post! Thank you for making me feel sane again for not liking this book!!
Haha I think you nailed it just fine!