NORMAL PEOPLE. By Sally Rooney. Hogarth. 273 pages. $26.
“Conversations with Friends” (2017), Sally Rooney’s first novel, came out of nowhere, like a great gulp of something fresh and young. Now comes “Normal People,” Rooney’s second book, just as riveting and also set among young people at Trinity College, Dublin. Gone is the love foursome of “Conversations,” gone too the ironic knowingness. Rooney’s new book is more concentrated, more desperate, more willing to go for broke.
She introduces Marianne and Connell, her protagonists, as opposites in most ways. She’s wealthy. He’s not. His mother is her family’s maid. He’s a soccer star, smart and quietly popular. She’s an outcast who reads fat novels at lunchtime. They pretend not to know each other at school. But, slowly, a friendship develops. When they come together in secret, she worries that she is a “private experiment” for him.
Rooney launches “Normal People” with an epigraph from George Eliot’s "Daniel Deronda," a little long but worth quoting in part for the stage it sets: “To many of us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.” Here is the novel’s nub. How does Rooney answer the challenge of Eliot’s vision of connectedness?
Page by page, “Normal People” works out with fascinating exactitude what the privilege of touch and influence entails. In the way of 19th-century novels, Rooney makes us care in old-fashioned ways about the outcome of her story. Fairly early in the novel, Connell is reading Jane Austen’s “Emma” at the library. He has just reached an agitating point — Mr. Knightley might marry Harriet instead of Emma — when it’s time to leave. Walking home, he admits, “But there it is. Literature moves him.” Rooney aims to move us, and does.
A more dicey premise of “Normal People” also comes straight out of the 19th-century novel. The crisp class divide of their home in County Sligo — and penalties for trespassing across the line — is understood without being spoken. Connell knows not to disclose his family’s economic dependence on Marianne’s family. While Rooney grounds her plot in a world of social fixities, she understands personal truths to be elastic. Over the course of a life, almost anything might happen to anyone. And anyone might at one time or another become somebody else.
Connell rides high as a popular boy in County Sligo, but he enters an “alternate universe” at Trinity College, where Marianne is suddenly happy and has a cool boyfriend. He is the lonely one, adrift in a place where “all his classmates have identical accents and carry the same Macbook under their arms.” Over the years of the novel (January 2011 to February 2015), Connell and Marianne come together and part, more than once. In the realm of love, either everything is normal or nothing is, Rooney seems to say. Love for her “normal people” is the ultimate conversion experience.
At the end of the novel, Connell senses a “huge emptiness” in Marianne, “like waiting for a life to arrive, and when the doors open, nothing is there.” Still, “he would lie down and die for her at any minute.” It turns out, for all the novel's syncopation of dark and bright, Marianne and Connell have not been living in separate solitudes. Marianne thinks of them as “two plants sharing the same plot of soil.” She asks herself, “Why not depend on people, let them depend on you.”
Goodness is a gift Connell gives Marianne; now it belongs to her. It’s tempting to imagine each without the other. Marianne might year by year come to value herself less, be more open to abasement. Connell might become one of those Henry James men with his hands in his pockets, a ghost in his own life. The idea of the unlived life hovers over these pages. Yet Rooney goes full-throttle toward the big finish: Love is real, and love matters.