Everything feels so important when you’re a teenager, every misstep and mistake catastrophic and world-ending. The world, of course, rarely ends in high school, even when you desperately wish it to. And two young people from different social and economic castes desperately wish it to in “Normal People” (Hogarth, 273 pp., ★★★½ out of four), after an intense sexual affair comes to an ignominious end.
The fallout that follows long after the schoolyard gossip dies makes for a keen psychological study of two specific, powerfully drawn characters that fixes its gaze inward. But in her microscopic specificity, Irish author Sally Rooney, 28 (this is only her second novel, after 2017’s “Conversations with Friends”), has accomplished a literary magic trick, writing a novel of universal profundity that explores the way power dynamics in sex shape not just those relationships, but our sense of self.
Marianne is an object of disgust at school, a rich girl who wears no makeup and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. She’s met with derision and scorn, is gossiped about prolifically in spite of her exile. Perhaps it’s because of her family’s wealth, which is enough of an instigation to provoke retaliation in an area of Ireland hit hard by the late-aughts economic recession.
No one has cause to feel more belittled by her wealth than Connell, whose mother is hired to clean Marianne’s house. He’s the only son of a single, working-class mom from a rough family, but Connell nevertheless enjoys a social wealth Marianne can only dream of. A handsome and strapping football star, Connell can have his pick of sexual conquests (including, it’s rumored, his seemingly besotted economics teacher).
He’s disgusted by his attraction to Marianne, inflamed by afternoons spent at her house with his mother. But their intellectual rapport proves undeniable. When they finally have sex, they find it impossible to stop. They agree to keep their liaisons a secret for the sake of Connell’s social standing. But even though the secretiveness is consensual, a mismatched power dynamic takes root in this dysfunctional foundation.
“He could do or say anything he wanted with her and no one would ever find out,” Connell thinks. “It gave him a vertiginous, lightheaded feeling to think about it.” The feeling intensifies, warps, as his power over Marianne grows. “He had a terrible sense all of a sudden that he could just hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him.”
Tragedy strikes, as of course it must. Life doesn’t end, though their relationship does. When Marianne and Connell cross paths again, this time at Trinity College in Dublin, their stations are reversed – it’s the monied and cosmopolitan Marianne who fits in and Connell who can’t seem to make friends.
Every line of “Normal People” is written in the service of character, even the most quotidian details. The eating of a lemon pastry, the ritualized preparations of cups of coffee or tea, the brief pause of porcelain poised at lips – every action, however small, goes back to character. That sensuousness of physical detail includes depictions of sex, unflinching and plentiful but never gratuitous. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that such relentlessly purposeful writing can feel like affectation.
Mostly, though, it’s bracingly assured. There’s one memorably meta moment when Connell, right before he again becomes entangled with Marianne in college, finds himself emotionally swept up in a Jane Austen novel. “He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him.”
It’s a cheeky passage, the sort that could prove embarrassing if the story at hand didn’t live up to the challenge it posed itself. Fortunately, there’s nothing at all intellectually unserious about getting swept away by “Normal People.”
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