Normal People by Sally Rooney is a book that came to me highly recommended from friends, the internet, and even President Obama.
A quote on the cover from The Washington Post says, “A novel that demands to be read compulsively, in one sitting.”
My experience reading it, however, was actually quite the opposite. I read it in small sections, sometimes having to take a little breather between sentences, pages, chapters. Why? I’m not really sure. I guess some of the sexual stuff made me feel all twisted and squirmy inside, and the emotional and physical abuse made me rightfully uncomfortable, and the whole romance between such highly intelligent, intense, and sexually-charged young people made me feel alienated, like I somehow missed out on something in highschool and university. Is that really what it feels like to be young and in love? I don’t know, but the internet seems to think so.
I read the majority of the novel lying on a towel at the lake. It was a windy day and my hair kept blowing in my face. In between reading sentences, pages, chapters, I observed the other people around me and I thought about what it even means to be normal. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.” When people look at me, do they think I’m normal? And if they knew the feelings I sometimes conceal or the thoughts I don’t dare utter out loud, would they still think I’m normal?
In many ways, I found it hard to connect to any of the novel’s characters. The subjects they talk about so openly with each other, the darkness of their innermost thoughts, even the discussions on and importance of class differences between the friends – the experiences of Marianne and Connell seemed far darker, sadder, and more sinister than mine ever were. Then again, I feel like I grew up in a bubble.
Still, underneath the heavy emotional exhaustion that weighs down the plot, I recognized parts of myself, finding common ground in the universal feelings of loneliness, awkwardness, longing, tenderness, shame, and insecurities that plague coming-of-age novels. This quest to find (and accept) ourselves; to heal our broken parts; to free ourselves from the boxes we find ourselves stuck in – by our families, the expectations of society, or perhaps the saddest of all, our own doing.
What I particularly like about this book is that Sally Roony really captures the beautiful and ugly parts of people; their curious and detached natures; their capacity to feel hope and despair; their tendency to be both cruel and kind. While the plot appears to be pretty basic on the surface (nerdy girl and popular guy begin a secret romance only to have their social roles reversed when they go to university), the pages in fact build upon layers of complexity, poignancy, pain, and ultimately humanity. Yes, some parts were uncomfortable, frustrating, and even devastating – but I guess that sums up the price of being human.
Have you read Normal People? I’m curious to know what you thought of it.