In 2015, Mandy Len Catron’s New York Times Modern Love essay, “To Fall in Love, Do This” went viral. The essay referred to a study that investigates whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated through answering a series of thirty-six questions. The list begins with the classic icebreaker: “who would you want as a dinner guest?” and concludes with the would-be lovers asking each other for advice on a personal problem. The stakes are high, after all, love is on the line, but the real work isn’t a simple exchange of information. It asks its participants to get uncomfortable, to get vulnerable, and above all, to trust each other. When I read Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Normal People, I thought of the thirty-six questions. In a world of dating applications, where we’re all replaceable with a single swipe to the right (and we know it), what does it take to connect and maintain that connection with another person? Tailor-made for the millennial generation, Normal People is a love letter to the power of relationships. It reflects on a simple, but powerful truth—the ability of people to really change one another.
Some reviewers have compared Rooney to Lena Dunham. Despite the difference in their mediums, the comparison is well-founded. Like Dunham, Rooney’s work speaks strongly to millenials. She’s able to render in pitch-perfect dialogue, the complexities of the early twenties, an ability that has also earned her the title of the ‘Salinger for the Snapchat Generation.’ Curiously enough, social media is hardly mentioned in Normal People. In fact, the protagonists will often use the rather old-fashioned mode of email to communicate with each other. This title is then in response to the skill with which Rooney explores the anxieties that are pulled to the surface in the digital sphere, the biggest of them being how to be yourself. While there’s no universal answer to that question, Normal People suggests that who you are and who you will become is in parts derived from the people you choose to love.
At its most basic, Normal People is a classic will they/won’t they love story between two young people who exist on the opposite ends of the social spectrum in high school. Marianne is rich, but widely unpopular. Connell is poor, but adored as only a jock in high school would be. They begin sleeping with each other in secret and things (don’t) work out, just as you would expect them to. It’s a familiar tale, which would be a problem if this novel were purely plot-driven. It’s not. The pleasure of reading Normal People is watching the inner lives of characters who are deeply intelligent and self-aware, spill onto paper.
Normal People is most successful as a coming-of-age story. With exquisite pacing, Rooney creates a tale that is hard to put down. Covering a period of five years, Connell and Marianne continue to weave in and out of each other’s lives, dating other people, getting back together to only separate due to gross miscommunication. The chapters are structured in intervals that range between seven-months-later, the longest, to five-minutes-later, the shortest. This is particularly effective; after all in university a lot can change in a span of months. A summer job or a trip abroad, the right or the wrong relationship can be life altering. At separate points, both characters bemoan their desire to be normal. Both times, it feels less like an indictment of what society deems to be normal, than an evocation of the growing pains of learning to become yourself.
Selfhood is explored and expressed in many ways. For Marianne that exploration primarily takes place within the realm of sexuality, specifically BDSM. Marianne’s penchant for violence presents an opportunity for Rooney to explore an alternative sexual practice; instead obvious links are established between Marianne’s dysfunctional family and her sexual preferences. Helen Charman at the White Review similarly observes, “much of the narrative turns on Marianne’s submissive nature, and her desire to be beaten by her male sexual partners, but its portrayal of the complexities of submission, dominance and consent can never quite shake the suggestion that Marianne is somehow abnormal, or damaged.” In a particularly cringe-inducing scene, Connell and Marianne are about to have sex, and in the thick of foreplay, Marianne asks Connell to hit her. Awkward silence ensues; he refuses. Marianne feels shame, self-doubt, and confusion upon his refusal—“she hates the person she has become, without feeling any power to change anything about herself.” Connell predictably feels guilt upon not being able to “help her” escape her “terrible, dark emptiness.” (Let it be noted that Marianne never asked for his help.) Not every practitioner of BDSM is driven by a sense of self-loathing. Unfortunately, Marianne is. Whether this is Rooney intentionally making a statement about particular sexual practices is unclear, but this may be the one aspect of the novel where Rooney doesn’t quite rise to the challenge. Nevertheless, what is effectively expressed in this novel is how our notions about ourselves are inextricably tied to our bodily expressions of desire.
The novel seems to pose the question: what is the normal way of expressing desire, of loving someone? Marianne asks,
How strange to feel herself completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on other people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.
There it is. The heart of the novel, and the heart of any relationship: vulnerability, the exchange of power, and the inevitable loss of control. When the thirty-six questions went viral in 2015, it felt like the arrival of an efficient means to fast-track intimacy. The New York Times published a follow up reporting on the experiences of couples who had tried out the test. While most people did not immediately fall in love, the questions did demonstrate all that could be gained from a bit of trust. In Normal People, we get a narrative that realistically depicts the messy nature of relationships, the complex ways in which trust is earned, and the often painful cost of vulnerability. What makes the novel compelling is that it shows that gaining love and intimacy is not the only thing that makes it all worth it—the lessons we learn from each relationship make for just as valuable a prize.