Certain stories are unique in that they feel simultaneously universal and very, very private. Normal People is the kind of book you may want to read curled up in bed, shielded from the world, as you’re confronted with the raw confusion, doubt, and intimacy that comes with being human. Then again, it’s also the kind of book you may want to read in a crowded coffee shop, surrounded by people chatting and laughing, reminding yourself of the comfort in companionship—in having people with whom you can share those innermost parts of yourself. This book is the unmistakable tale of two people who struggle with themselves individually as well as with their relationship to one another. Author Sally Rooney transcribes each thought, emotion, and impulse carefully, allowing readers to truly understand and relate to these vulnerable characters’ respective loneliness and closeness. Her use of language and story structure is fearlessly candid and meticulously purposeful.
Normal People opens with Marianne and Connell in their final year of secondary school (high school) in their small town of Carricklea, Ireland. Marianne is an intelligent, unpopular, and wealthy teenager who doesn’t seem to have many friends at school, whilst Connell is an intelligent, well-liked, and anxious peer whose mother happens to work as a maid for Marianne’s mother. When this unexpected pair begins seeing one another, Connell insists on keeping it a secret. As the years pass, they undergo life’s challenges and triumphs with and without one another. But no matter what, they always seem to find their way back to one another—and their connection isn’t solely romantic. As Rooney crafts their individual pathways in life, they always seem to intertwine, but they are there for one another in every respect. As growing pains threaten to consume them, they reach for one another; the mutual uncertainty of their feelings coupled with the impact they have on each another cultivates a difficult yet earnest companionship. In their case, to be young and in love is confusingly arduous at worst and intoxicatingly inspiring at best.
Though Normal People was published in 2018, it seems to have only grown in popularity since then. The hit Hulu adaptation series starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal was released in 2020, and fans still actively post compilation videos of the characters online, expressing their love for the characters and the story. But many are sure to credit the original source material when applauding the series, and for good reason. Yes, Rooney’s second novel is a poignant fiction romance which tackles the growing pains involved with budding adolescence and relationships, but I would consider it first and foremost the brilliant epitome of a bildungsroman. And this is what makes it stand out amongst the throng of young adult stories today.
A bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age story that focuses primarily on the psychological growth of a character from youth into adulthood, is specific in its intent. Both Connell and Marianne endure complex experiences which develop their knowledge of the world and their maturity. Bildungsroman novels are often profound in their transition from child to adult, whereas a coming-of-age story generally applies to any novel about growing up. Normal People goes deeper, exploring the hyperawareness, awkwardness, and inexpertness of younger years before transitioning into the period of young adulthood which begs the essential question: Who are you?
In addition to existing as a nostalgic yet intense bildungsroman, Normal People is undoubtedly a realistic circular romance with complicated characters who keep you rooting for them, both individually and together. It scrutinizes the battle between high school social expectations and real feelings, naïve miscommunications between young lovers, self-doubt masked as alienation, temptation versus love, and countless other romantic qualms. Marianne and Connell embody young lovers who don’t know themselves well enough yet to love each other properly. Heartbreakingly realistic yet daringly promising, this love story is unique.
Whether you consider it more so a romance or a bildungsroman, one thing is for sure: Normal People is a relevant ode to young people, condemning the trivialization of their problems and their lives. In actuality, the growing period during which this novel takes place is anything but trivial; it is formative, enlightening, tender, grueling, hopeful, and dazzlingly crucial. Rooney dissects the most uncomfortable and cherished aspects of ourselves and our relationships, delving into class disparity, gender roles, anxiety, depression, trauma, abuse, and suicide in the process. She weaves storylines which somehow explore each of these issues in-depth amongst a younger generation. Her realist approach to storytelling lends itself to perceptive insights into these issues. As well, her characters’ subtleties are specific, revealing attitudes and characteristics which are imperfect yet likeable products of the individual’s experience.
Sally Rooney is an Irish author and editor who has published three novels and several short stories. She was awarded the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year at age twenty six, and her work on the television adaptation of Normal People earned her an Emmy nomination. Rooney’s fans also rave about Conversations with Friends and Beautiful World, Where Are You, the latter of which won Novel of the Year at the 2022 Dalkey Literary Awards.