Most millennials have been conditioned to believe that to become a grown up, you have to be independent. Hailed as “the first great millennial author” by The New York Times, Sally Rooney questions this received wisdom. She said in a recent interview that she doesn’t “really believe in the idea of the individual.” This non-belief is evident in Rooney’s latest novel, Normal People, an unconventional bildungsroman that explores not the power of self-determination but the idea of the self as something generated between people. By her own admission, Rooney is fascinated with “the way we construct one another.”
Normal People, published earlier this month, introduces Connell as a popular schoolboy in Carricklea, a small town in West Ireland. Naturally reserved and secretly anxious, Connell recognizes that he has little control over his own identity: “His personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others rather than anything he individually did or produced.” Nevertheless, he feels compelled to live up to the public perception that he is cool, even when he falls in love with school pariah Marianne.
Ostracised by both her family and her peers, who maintain that she is not a “normal” person, Marianne exists at the periphery of Carricklea’s social structures. This gives her “the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away,” and that her unstructured reality in Carricklea is insubstantial. Connell, meanwhile, sees her as “independent.” He envies her “drastically free life,” even as he conforms to social expectations and insists that he and Marianne keep their relationship secret. After all, if people found out about it, “his life would be over:” His entire identity would be destabilized.
Connell prefers “to keep both worlds, both versions of his life, and to move between them.” With Marianne, he occupies a kind of otherworld; their relationship blossoms in the margins of Carricklea, including “the ghost,” a derelict, empty estate where cool kids go to drink and smoke. Not having friends to drink or smoke with, Marianne’s never heard of the ghost, so Connell drives her there and shows her around, having exited the car first “to make sure no one was around.” This may seem callous on his part, but Connell and Marianne find their otherworld alluring because of its separateness from the parallel version of their lives. Her social unacceptability creates a space between them that is secure, meaning they can both be authentic. In an abandoned house at the estate, they have an awkward, difficult conversation about their feelings, which deepens their intimacy. “People go through their whole lives, Marianne thought, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”
Still, their relationship falls apart, because Connell chooses to be normal rather than happy. He asks a popular girl whom he dislikes to the end-of-school ball. Marianne, upset, stops answering his calls. But at this very ball, Connell’s friend Eric tells him that everyone knows about “the secret for which he sacrificed his own happiness and the happiness of another person.” Connell finds this revelation horrifying, “not because it ended his life, but because it didn’t.” His reputation survives this minor scandal, and even if it hadn’t, the ball marks the end of the era when the opinions of his classmates are influential. “Life in Carricklea, which they had imbued with such drama and significance, just ended like that.” At the ball, Eric’s complexion appears ghostly to Connell, as he begins to realize that his school friends, rather than Marianne, will take on a lifeless quality over the next few years.
And so, Rooney shows that whole social structures can become destabilized, in the same way that identities can be. After all, the individual, in Normal People, is a microcosmic social structure, made up of webbed relationships and collective agreements. This might be the premise of any young adult novel—a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing your personality to be governed by peers. To allow others to construct us can be destructive. But Rooney doesn’t settle for this conclusion.
Connell and Marianne begin new lives as students at Trinity College, Dublin, where they are nothing more than estranged former schoolfellows. Marianne’s sense that her real life was far removed from Carricklea proves prescient: At university, she becomes instantly and immensely popular. Meanwhile, Connell becomes the “lonely, unpopular one.” Unlike Marianne, he’s from a working-class family, meaning that at a prestigious university he is an outsider. Travelling back to Carricklea every weekend to work at a garage, and finding that his school friends have dispersed, Connell loses any sense of having a “real life” either at home or in Dublin. Whereas he used to be able to move between two “versions of his life,” he now finds himself “trapped between two places,” unable to feel comfortable in either.
Connell originally applied to Trinity because of Marianne’s encouragement, but predicted that she “would pretend not to know him” if she bumped into him there. Marianne swore she’d do no such thing, and is true to her word. Despite being humiliated by Connell at school, when she meets him at a house party months later and miles away, she happily exclaims in front of her new friends: “Connell Waldron! From beyond the grave.” Here in Dublin, it is Connell, rather than Marianne, who is ghostly—a manifestation of a time that was the opposite of “life” for her—but once again, Marianne pulls Connell into her world. After this encounter, they grow close again, and she introduces Connell to everyone, telling “them all what great company he was, how sensitive and intelligent.” She constructs him, in other words, in the minds of others, in order to make Connell socially acceptable. She does for him what he was too afraid to do for her.
As a millennial author interested in the construction of identities, Rooney naturally considers the role technology plays in Marianne and Connell’s relationship. Again, she rejects received wisdom, refusing any lazy generalizations about the evils of social media, and avoiding the temptation to be snobbish about online writing. She stated in an interview that, “A large part of my style has definitely developed through writing emails,” and in Normal People, Connell develops his writing in a similar way. While traveling around Europe one summer, he composes long emails for Marianne, which he redrafts, “reviewing all the elements of prose, moving clauses around to make the sentences fit together correctly.” He reflects that writing these emails “feels like an expression of a broader and more fundamental principle, something in his identity, or something even more abstract, to do with life itself.” When physically distant from Marianne, Connell finds that the intangible, technological space between them solidifies both his sense of self and something bigger, beyond himself.
Connell is “not someone who feels comfortable confiding in others, or demanding things from them. He needs Marianne for this reason.” At school, he depended on others to give him a shape; at university, he depends on Marianne. Their intimacy is a secure space in which their identities are collaboratively and positively constructed. Connell reflects on his schooldays, when “He had just wanted to be normal, to conceal the parts of himself that he found shameful or confusing. It was Marianne who had shown him other things were possible.” In Normal People, Rooney shows us the constructive power of nurturing, tolerant relationships in opposition to the destructiveness of superficial relationships.
While Connell felt pressure to live up to his peers’ positive construction of him in Carricklea, Marianne was struggling to resist her abusive family’s negative construction of her. She learns from them that she is unlovable. Her relationships at university are profoundly affected by this narrative, particularly with a boyfriend named Jamie, who she asks to “beat me up. Just during sex, that is. Not during arguments.” This proclivity, Rooney suggests, is a symptom of the narrative Marianne absorbed in Carricklea: “‘Maybe I want to be treated badly,’ she says. ‘I don’t know. Sometimes I think I deserve bad things because I’m a bad person.’”
But Marianne’s desire to submit to Jamie arises from feeling independent of him. When Connell mentions that she “never said any of this to” him, when they were together, Marianne explains:
I didn’t need to play any games with you, she says. It was real. With Jamie it’s like I’m acting a part, I just pretend to feel that way, like I’m in his power. But with you that really was the dynamic, I actually had those feelings, I would have done anything you wanted me to.
In other words, the sexual preferences she expresses are a response to the dynamic she finds herself a part of. She longs to escape her sense of independence from those around her—a sense that causes intense loneliness—even as she is afraid of the effects other people might have on her. Connell helps Marianne break out of this cycle. Though misunderstandings between them hurt her, Connell never abuses Marianne. Consistently, he counters her internalized narrative that she is a bad person who deserves mistreatment. Instead, “He brought her goodness like a gift,” enabling her to ultimately embrace the novel’s underlying philosophy: “No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”
Rooney reaches back for her novel’s epigraph, long before the dawn of our postmodern society that determinedly lionizes the independent individual. She quotes a central idea from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: “To many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence.” She thereby introduces a coming-of-age story that emphasises not independence but interdependence. Eliot’s “peculiar influence” is another form of what Rooney describes as the special relationship between the “facts” people know about Connell’s and Marianne’s lives—a relationship that finds the protagonists, several years after their first kiss, unable to “leave one another alone.” Marianne and Connell grow up “like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another,” as do we all, leaning on one another, unable to sustain independence.
In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.
1.Dear Match Book,
like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.
advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.
2.Dear Match Book,
I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!
I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)
Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.
What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!
3.Dear Match Book,
Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.
4.Dear Match Book,
I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.
Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.
could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
5.Dear Match Book,
A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.
6.Dear Match Book,
books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.
You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!
Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.
7.Dear Match Book,
I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.
I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.
There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.
8.Dear Match Book,
I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s
9.Dear Match Book,
been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
Deronda, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.
problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?
Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.
10.Dear Match Book,
recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?
N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.
you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.
11.Dear Match Book,
was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….
Dear Thrown for a Loop,
Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.
Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.