ONE OF THE TEN BEST NOVELS OF THE DECADE—Entertainment Weekly
TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR—People, Slate, The New York Public Library, Harvard Crimson
AND BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR—The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, O: The Oprah Magazine, Time, NPR, The Washington Post, Vogue, Esquire, Glamour, Elle, Marie Claire, Vox, The Paris Review, Good Housekeeping, Town & Country
Connell and Marianne grew up in the same small town, but the similarities end there. At school, Connell is popular and well liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation—awkward but electrifying—something life changing begins.
A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.
Normal People is the story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find that they can’t.
Praise for Normal People
“[A] novel that demands to be read compulsively, in one sitting.”—The Washington Post
“Arguably the buzziest novel of the season, Sally Rooney’s elegant sophomore effort . . . is a worthy successor to Conversations with Friends. Here, again, she unflinchingly explores class dynamics and young love with wit and nuance.”—The Wall Street Journal
“[Rooney] has been hailed as the first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism. . . . [She writes] some of the best dialogue I’ve read.”—The New Yorker
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell. She’s still wearing her school uniform, but she’s taken off the sweater, so it’s just the blouse and skirt, and she has no shoes on, only tights.
Oh, hey, he says.
Come on in.
She turns and walks down the hall. He follows her, closing the door behind him. Down a few steps in the kitchen, his mother Lorraine is peeling off a pair of rubber gloves. Marianne hops onto the countertop and picks up an open jar of chocolate spread, in which she has left a teaspoon.
Marianne was telling me you got your mock results today, Lorraine says.
We got English back, he says. They come back separately. Do you want to head on?
Lorraine folds the rubber gloves up neatly and replaces them below the sink. Then she starts unclipping her hair. To Connell this seems like something she could accomplish in the car.
And I hear you did very well, she says.
He was top of the class, says Marianne.
Right, Connell says. Marianne did pretty good too. Can we go?
Lorraine pauses in the untying of her apron.
I didn’t realize we were in a rush, she says.
He puts his hands in his pockets and suppresses an irritable sigh, but suppresses it with an audible intake of breath, so that it still sounds like a sigh.
I just have to pop up and take a load out of the dryer, says Lorraine. And then we’ll be off. Okay?
He says nothing, merely hanging his head while Lorraine leaves the room.
Do you want some of this? Marianne says.
She’s holding out the jar of chocolate spread. He presses his hands down slightly further into his pockets, as if trying to store his entire body in his pockets all at once.
No, thanks, he says.
Did you get your French results today?
He puts his back against the fridge and watches her lick the spoon. In school he and Marianne affect not to know each other. People know that Marianne lives in the white mansion with the driveway and that Connell’s mother is a cleaner, but no one knows of the special relationship between these facts.
I got an A1, he says. What did you get in German?
An A1, she says. Are you bragging?
You’re going to get six hundred, are you?
She shrugs. You probably will, she says.
Well, you’re smarter than me.
Don’t feel bad. I’m smarter than everyone.
Marianne is grinning now. She exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her. Her father died when she was thirteen and Connell has heard she has a mental illness now or something. It’s true she is the smartest person in school. He dreads being left alone with her like this, but he also finds himself fantasizing about things he could say to impress her.
You’re not top of the class in English, he points out.
She licks her teeth, unconcerned.
Maybe you should give me grinds, Connell, she says.
He feels his ears get hot. She’s probably just being glib and not suggestive, but if she is being suggestive it’s only to degrade him by association, since she is considered an object of disgust. She wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face. People have said she doesn’t shave her legs or anything. Connell once heard that she spilled chocolate ice cream on herself in the school lunchroom, and she went to the girls’ bathrooms and took her blouse off to wash it in the sink. That’s a popular story about her, everyone has heard it. If she wanted, she could make a big show of saying hello to Connell in school. See you this afternoon, she could say, in front of everyone. Undoubtedly it would put him in an awkward position, which is the kind of thing she usually seems to enjoy. But she has never done it.
What were you talking to Miss Neary about today? says Marianne.
Oh. Nothing. I don’t know. Exams.
Marianne twists the spoon around inside the jar.
Does she fancy you or something? Marianne says.
Connell watches her moving the spoon. His ears still feel very hot.
Why do you say that? he says.
God, you’re not having an affair with her, are you?
Obviously not. Do you think it’s funny joking about that?
Sorry, says Marianne.
She has a focused expression, like she’s looking through his eyes into the back of his head.
You’re right, it’s not funny, she says. I’m sorry.
He nods, looks around the room for a bit, digs the toe of his shoe into a groove between the tiles.
Sometimes I feel like she does act kind of weird around me, he says. But I wouldn’t say that to people or anything.
Even in class I think she’s very flirtatious toward you.
Do you really think that?
Marianne nods. He rubs at his neck. Miss Neary teaches Economics. His supposed feelings for her are widely discussed in school. Some people are even saying that he tried to add her on Facebook, which he didn’t and would never do. Actually he doesn’t do or say anything to her, he just sits there quietly while she does and says things to him. She keeps him back after class sometimes to talk about his life direction, and once she actually touched the knot of his school tie. He can’t tell people about the way she acts because they’ll think he’s trying to brag about it. In class he feels too embarrassed and annoyed to concentrate on the lesson, he just sits there staring at the textbook until the bar graphs start to blur.
People are always going on at me that I fancy her or whatever, he says. But I actually don’t, at all. I mean, you don’t think I’m playing into it when she acts like that, do you?
Not that I’ve seen.
He wipes his palms down on his school shirt unthinkingly. Everyone is so convinced of his attraction to Miss Neary that sometimes he starts to doubt his own instincts about it. What if, at some level above or below his own perception, he does actually desire her? He doesn’t even really know what desire is supposed to feel like. Any time he has had sex in real life, he has found it so stressful as to be largely unpleasant, leading him to suspect that there’s something wrong with him, that he’s unable to be intimate with women, that he’s somehow developmentally impaired. He lies there afterward and thinks: I hated that so much that I feel sick. Is that just the way he is? Is the nausea he feels when Miss Neary leans over his desk actually his way of experiencing a sexual thrill? How would he know?
I could go to Mr. Lyons for you if you want, says Marianne. I won’t say you told me anything, I’ll just say I noticed it myself.
Jesus, no. Definitely not. Don’t say anything about it to anyone, okay?
Okay, all right.
He looks at her to confirm she’s being serious, and then nods.
It’s not your fault she acts like that with you, says Marianne. You’re not doing anything wrong.
Quietly he says: Why does everyone else think I fancy her, then?
Maybe because you blush a lot when she talks to you. But you know, you blush at everything, you just have that complexion.
He gives a short, unhappy laugh. Thanks, he says.
Well, you do.
Yeah, I’m aware.
You’re blushing now actually, says Marianne.
He closes his eyes, pushes his tongue against the roof of his mouth. He can hear Marianne laughing.
Why do you have to be so harsh on people? he says.
I’m not being harsh. I don’t care if you’re blushing, I won’t tell anyone.
Just because you won’t tell people doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want.
Okay, she says. Sorry.
He turns and looks out the window at the garden. Really the garden is more like “grounds.” It includes a tennis court and a large stone statue in the shape of a woman. He looks out at the “grounds” and moves his face close to the cool breath of the glass. When people tell that story about Marianne washing her blouse in the sink, they act like it’s just funny, but Connell thinks the real purpose of the story is something else. Marianne has never been with anyone in school, no one has ever seen her undressed, no one even knows if she likes boys or girls, she won’t tell anyone. People resent that about her, and Connell thinks that’s why they tell the story, as a way of gawking at something they’re not allowed to see.
I don’t want to get into a fight with you, she says.
Reading Group Guide
In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel. If you have not finished reading Normal People, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.
1. While living at home in Carricklea, Connell’s sense of self is managed by the opinions of his peers in secondary school. To that end, he avoids being publicly seen with Marianne, an outcast in school, fearing how their association might damage his reputation.
Were you critical of Connell for the way he treated Marianne in school, or were you sympathetic toward his adolescent self-consciousness? Do you think he became less concerned by the thoughts of others as he grew older?
2. With Marianne, Connell feels a sense of “total privacy” in which “he could tell her anything about himself, even weird things, and she would never repeat them, he knows that. Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him” (6–7).
Why do you think Connell is sometimes unnerved by their intense and intimate connection? Further, why do you think he’s unsettled by the sense that Marianne would do anything to please him?
3. The first time Connell tells Marianne he loves her, we are told that “She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life” (46).
Do you think Marianne had ever been told that she was loved, in any sense of the word, by anyone before Connell? How can the experience of “first love” transform a person’s self-image and view of the world?
4. In Normal People, Marianne only barely opens up to Connell about her relationship with her family—how her father had been violent when he was alive, how her brother verbally and physically attacks her, and how her mother essentially forbids her to believe that she is “special” in any way.
How does Marianne’s family influence her opinion of herself and affect her relationships with other people? How does she attempt to distance herself from her family? And how does Connell’s upbringing compare and contrast to Marianne’s?
5. When they move from the countryside to attend college in Dublin, there is somewhat of a role reversal between Connell and Marianne. Connell, once popular in secondary school, is scrutinized and mocked at Trinity College for his fashion sense and thick Galway accent, and he is even called a “milk-drinking culchie” (154). Marianne on the other hand, herself from a wealthy family, moves at ease through an elitist social scene.
How do class dynamics affect Connell and Marianne in Dublin? How do their reactions to class prejudice and snobbery shade your view of them as characters?
6. How would you describe the power that Connell and Marianne hold over each other? Did you notice a power relation shift and evolve between them over the years? How might it have had both positive and negative effects in different moments?
7. Despite being so close, Connell and Marianne sometimes miscommunicate and misinterpret each other. This can be seen when Connell, unable to pay rent in Dublin, moves back to Carricklea to save money during the summer of 2012, after he fails to directly ask Marianne if he can move in with her.
How does the structure of Normal People, oscillating between the experiences of both characters during this time, reveal the ways in which they misunderstood each other? How do you think their relationship would have turned out differently if Connell had stayed with Marianne that summer?
8. As the narrative progresses, Marianne becomes increasingly submissive in her sexual encounters with other people. Why do you think she is so repulsed by Lukas during “the game” when he tells her that he loves her (203)? Does she try to separate love from sex? Why do you think she later asks Connell if he will hit her during sex, and why does she shut down when he declines?
9. Both Marianne and Connell undergo certain crises of meaning during their later years in college. For instance, Marianne becomes increasingly dissociated from herself and from other people when she is studying in Sweden, and Connell suffers from depression after his friend Rob commits suicide.
Do you think that people are generally more vulnerable to internal crises and mental health issues in their late teens and early twenties? Why or why not? What are the most important support systems and coping mechanisms for someone going through such a difficult time, and do you think that Connell and Marianne find them in Normal People?
10. Connell is disillusioned by the contrived and stale performances he witnesses during a reading at Trinity College Dublin. Consider the following quote:
“It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys. . . . All books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything” (228).
Do you agree with this assessment? What kind of “resistance” do you think Connell has in mind? Were you surprised to find such a critique in a recently published book? Do you think that by illuminating prejudices and injustices, as well as commonalities that exist between people, literature might still serve an important social purpose? You might illustrate your answers by pointing to passages from Normal People or by referencing other books that have been released in the past few years.
11. In an interview with The New Yorker, Sally Rooney mentioned that “A lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing.” Would you agree with this comment? How might Normal People and Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, be compared, structurally and thematically, to nineteenth-century romantic literature?
12. Despite the magnetic attraction that persists between Connell and Marianne, they are never officially “together” in this book. Considering the highs and lows they each go through over the years, do you think that they could have ever had a normatively structured boyfriend-girlfriend relationship? Did reading this novel lead you to question why we tend to put rigid labels on our relationships?
13. At the end of Normal People, when Connell is offered a place in an MFA program in New York, Marianne thinks, “He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once. They’ve done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another” (273).
In what ways did you see Marianne and Connell change each other’s lives? How did they find parts of themselves in and through each other? Do you worry about what could happen to Marianne without Connell? Or do you think it might be important for them to spend time apart and grow independently after college?
14. At times, we see that Marianne considers herself intrinsically damaged, unlovable, and “bad.” In other words, she believes that she will never be a normal person.
Having read about their innermost insecurities, feelings of alienation, sexual drives, desires, and so on, do you think that Connell and Marianne are any more or less “normal” than other people? What qualifies a person as normal, and do you think that such a completely normal person can exist?