Two teenagers have sexual chemistry and passionately—if awkwardly—hook up.
Such is the deceptively simplistic beginning of Normal People, an exceptional new novel by Irish writer Sally Rooney.
The teenagers in question are Connell and Marianne, living in a small town in Ireland in 2011. Rooney’s second novel after 2017’s Conversations with Friends is, on its surface, a will they-won’t they romance. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s a fascinating examination of class differences and shifting power dynamics.
Marianne is quirky and friendless, while Connell is a popular athlete. Marianne comes from a wealthy, cold and unloving family, while Connell is the only child of a strong, kind single mother who makes her living cleaning Marianne’s family home.
It’s there that the two begin their secret affair; secret because he doesn’t want anyone to find out he’s sleeping with her, and she doesn’t really care either way. Their high school tryst ends not with a bang but rather with a whimper: Connell asks another girl to their last school dance and Marianne cuts off contact.
But their paths cross again after both enroll at Dublin’s Trinity College, where their dynamic shifts dramatically. All of a sudden, strange, ugly duckling Marianne is popular, while Connell struggles to find his footing among his wealthy classmates.
Rooney’s genus is in her ability to take a classic love story and make it fresh, largely thanks to her knack for characterization. Though Marianne “wears ugly, thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face,” Connell “fears being around her, because of the confusing way he finds himself behaving, the things he says that he would never ordinarily say.” And Rooney clearly has a place within the cannon. When Connell finds himself lost in Jane Austen’s Emma, Rooney states: “It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is—literature moves him.”