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."
And so begins the story of Marianne and Connell, two young people in school in west Ireland growing up, growing apart, and growing together again, over and over.
Normal People is a traditional coming-of-age story. It's a simple tale, simply told. It's all character development. Marianne and Connell go to school together, grow to like one another, but keep their relationship a secret. Marianne is a rich girl, shy and unpopular. Connell is a working class boy, popular and embarrassed to be seen with Marianne. After graduation, they both go to university in Dublin, where their relationship comes out in the open and blossoms, until it doesn't. It's a strange relationship, at once open and at the same time jealously guarded. I say strange, but maybe Rooney's point is that it really is normal. Marianne and Connell have only a dim awareness of how interconnected their souls are growing. They split up, without either really wanting that or even being aware that that's what's happening. They each date others, but their lives keep intersecting and when they do, they are drawn to each other, seemingly destined to be together.
At one point Marianne spends a year abroad at school in Sweden. She has this conversation with a Swedish friend Lukas. "In Sweden we have a saying, he says. There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. Marianne hangs her coat beside her hat. What's wrong with my clothes? she says mildly. It's just an expression, says Lukas."
I quote that for two reasons. One is because Marianne and Connell are always like that: searching for hidden meaning behind everything they say to each other. It drives me crazy now, but I dimly remember being that way myself long ago. For another reason, Sally Rooney irritatingly doesn't use quotation marks. I'm reading an ebook so she isn't even saving ink by omitting them. They were invented for a good reason. Use them.
So what's with the title, Normal People? If it's Sally Rooney's position that Marianne and Connell are normal people, or that their relationship is normal, then I have to say life has changed since I was their age. Or maybe I've just forgotten. Or maybe Rooney is saying that Marianne and Connell are desperate to be normal, but somehow fear they will never be. Weren't we all mentally messed up when young, struggling to sort out friendships and love, peer and family pressures, the great unknowns of school and career? The details of Marianne and Connell's relationship might be foreign to me, but the rootlessness of the young lives feels very familiar. In that sense, Normal People might awaken long-forgotten memories in all of us.