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. It’s like being battered round the head with that copy of Postcolonial Reason.
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.