“Most people go through their whole lives, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.” — Sally Rooney
In Sally Rooney’s Normal People we enter a plane in which the two main characters nor anything that happens to them is extraordinary, and yet they experience the most special connection of all, the kind of connection that we all dream about.
Marianne’s family is wealthy and her temperament is of someone who cares very little and is unamused by the type of lives her peers at school lead. Due to her unpleasant disposition, Marianne is often the butt of the joke and is openly bullied by her peers — a situation which she manages by alienating herself and cutting herself off from human connection.
Connell, unlike Marianne, is that popular kid at school who everyone is friends with. The jock, good student, people pleaser, who’d probably also help old ladies cross the road. Still, he lives with a certain inferiority complex due to having been the product of teenage pregnancy, the child of a mother who now works as a housekeeper to pay the bills. This insecurity comes fully to the surface later on as he gets accepted into one of the most prestigious universities in Ireland.
Despite their differences, in character, social and economic status, Connell and Marianne find their way to each other. They begin an odd, friends-with-benefits sort of relationship, kept secret from everyone at school. Perhaps not the most ideal beginning, but Connell and Marianne instantly click. They forge a connection with each other that is unique and hard to find. They understand each other on a different level and in a way no one else has ever been able to understand them before: without expectations, without need for explanations or reasoning, they find in each other someone with whom they can be their most absolute authentic selves.
Through their journey, as they come together, fall apart and come together again, Marianne and Connell help each other grow. Marianne opens up for the first time about the abuse her now diseased, alcoholic father inflicted on the family, the abuse her brother now inflicts on her, and her mother’s aloofness to it all. She’s forced to confront personal demons — ones that keep her from seeing herself as someone who deserves love. Connell becomes the lighthouse that leads her to begin to love herself.
Marianne, on the other hand, helps Connell come out of his shell. Not someone used to rocking the boat, Connell hides behind an agreeable disposition that comes across as empty, due to his fear of asserting himself and his ideas. Marianne encourages him, from the very beginning, to try the waters and dream more for himself. She helps him find his worth, to believe in his talent and to believe that he’s capable of bigger things.
Though their relationship remains undefined, this connection of theirs never falters. Even in the moments when they find themselves at odds with each other or headed down different paths, Marianne and Connell have, first and foremost, each other’s best interests at heart, both willing to step out of the way to give the other space to shine.
Rooney’s mastery of describing the undefined, of narrating a story where she’s simply an observer with a clinical eye for naming exactly all the things that are so often left unsaid — the invisible words that float around us connecting us all as humans — is what makes Normal People an extraordinary, incomparable narrative.