Normal People is a contemporary fiction novel written by Sally Rooney set in Ireland. Marianne and Connell go to the same school, but are from opposite sides of the track. Both of them are being brought up by their mother; Marianne’s father died when she was 13 and Connell never knew his father. Marianne’s mother is a solicitor, and her father was one as well. Connell’s mother was a single mother who had him at the age of 17 and one of her brothers served time in prison.
Connell’s mother works as a maid for Marianne’s rich family. While the teenagers talk to each other when Marianne comes to pick up his mother after work, they do not acknowledge each other at school.
At school, both Marianne and Connell are very smart. However, they’re in different leagues. Marianne is an outcast with no friends. Her home life is no better, with physical and mental abuse. In contrast, Connell is a center forward on the football team and one of the popular boys, and he and his mother are friends. He calls his mother by her first name, Lorraine.
Talking to each other at Marianne’s one day, while Connell was waiting for his mom, the two teens had a conversation that starts a complicated friendship. From that moment, wherever they go, their lives are entwined.
We follow Marianne and Connell through their last year of high school into university. Over the years, as they grow older, they continue to struggling with their feelings about themselves and each other. This leads to lots of misunderstandings and miscommunication. It takes many years for them to learn to talk to each other, to reveal their whole selves.
Verdict on Normal People
I was captivated by the story of Connell and Marianne in Normal People. It is a beautiful story of yearning for belonging, and for invisibility through normalcy. The complex relationship between the two main characters seems realistic and captures elements of modern life and relationships.
Rooney does an insightful job of portraying the writers, showing their interactions and relations. I could relate to the characters, to their internal struggles, insecurities and misunderstandings.
The book explores a variety of themes: family, friendship, love, identity, abuse, trauma, class, power, survival. What does it mean to be normal or broken? I would recommend reading Normal People if you enjoy a story that is more about the plot line than the character development.
Read on if you want all the spoils!
Strangers in the same School
When the story starts, Marianne and Connell know very little about each other, although they go to the same school. Marianne’s reputation at school is of an outsider.
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 is popular at school, but doesn’t feel like he belongs. While everyone talks about sex and are very interested in it, he is not. Each time, he finds the experience unpleasant and stressful. Because of this, he worries that something is wrong with him.
Marianne confuses Connell. He realizes that she holds power over him, with the ability to make life difficult for him by talking to him at school. Yet, she never does this. Something about being with her is different.
Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him. He’s not frightened of her, actually she’s a pretty relaxed person, but he fears being around her, because of the confusing way he finds himself behaving, the things he says that he would never ordinarily say.
And he also saw her differently outside of school and in school.
You act different in class, you’re not really like that. He seemed to think Marianne had access to a range of different identities, between which she slipped effortlessly. This surprised her, because she usually felt confined inside one single personality, which was always the same regardless of what she did or said.
Something Like Friendship
During one conversation at her house, Connell told Marianne that she likes him. After that, he started coming into the house more often. After he kissed her one day, she went over to his home that evening, and they had sex for the first time; it was her first time.
For the first time, Connell understood what the big deal was about sex. Yet, he was conflicted that he felt this with Marianne.
He seemed to fit perfectly inside her. Physically it just felt right, and he understood why people did insane things for sexual reasons then. In fact he understood a lot of things about the adult world that had previously seemed mysterious. But why Marianne? It wasn’t like she was so attractive. Some people thought she was the ugliest girl in school. What kind of person would want to do this with her? And yet he was there, whatever kind of person he was, doing it.
Connell saw his relationship with Marianne as private, something not to be mixed with his other world. He would sometimes talk about wishes with her, but she didn’t take him seriously. She knew that “Connell always gets what he wants, and then feels sorry for himself when what he wants doesn’t make him happy”.
High School Friends
At a school event three months after Connell and Marianne start their friendship, Marianne was volunteering selling tickets. When Connell and his friends showed up, one of them assaulted Marianne, grabbing her breast hard. No one defended her except one of the two other girls she was volunteering with. Connell said nothing to defend her but left to give her a ride home.
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.
Nothing changed in their relationship at school. He still ignored her and asked another girl, Rachel Moran, to Debs (like prom?). His mother, who knew he had been sleeping with Marianne, told him she’s ashamed of him for doing that, for being afraid of what people would say about him for asking Marianne. When he told Marianne, she dropped out of school and studied independently to write her finals. She ignored all his calls and wouldn’t meet him.
Connell continued to date Rachel for two months, but he didn’t really like being with her.
He had thought that being with her would make him feel less lonely, but it only gave his loneliness a new stubborn quality, like it was planted down inside him and impossible to kill.
Months later, talking to one of his high school friends, Eric, on a visit back home, he’d realize that dating Marianne would not have been the calamity he considered it to be, that Eric and his friends had suspected his relationship with Marianne.
He knew then that the secret for which he had sacrificed his own happiness and the happiness of another person had been trivial all along
New Friends at University
At university, Connell didn’t fit in. He was studying literature at Trinity College and felt that most of his classmates were pretentious or shallow. He ended up making a casual friend, Gareth, who invited him to a party.
At the party, Connell met Marianne again. She had a lot of friends and seemed happy. Their friendship blooms again, and they start spending a lot of time together. He is popular with her female friends, although her male friends don’t seem to like him.
A few months after they first reconnected, Marianne and Connell started having sex with each other.
[Marianne says] It’s not like this with other people, she says. Yeah, he says. I know.
This time, Marianne is the socially adept one. Being rich, Connell benefits from associating with her, with job offers and instant friends. However, Connell realizes he has some kind of power over her, and it scares him.
He has a terrible sense all of a sudden that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him. The idea frightens him so badly that he pulls his chair back and stands up. His hands are shaking. He doesn’t know why he thought about it. Maybe he wants to do it. But it makes him feel sick.
That summer, after they met up again, Connell went home for the summer. What Marianne didn’t know was that he wanted to stay with her but wasn’t confident enough to ask her and was hurt when she didn’t offer. Instead, he said he wanted to see other people, and Marianne said okay.
Marianne started dating Jamie, in a relationship where she was a sub. But the relationship is also a painful one for her, that drains her energy when she thinks of it in the daytime.
She and Connell remained friends, meeting with each other when back in the same city. When she told him about her relationship with Jamie, he felt scared, even when she said it was her idea.
Marianne is the only one who ever triggers these feelings in him, the strange dissociative feeling, like he’s drowning and time doesn’t exist properly anymore.
After Marianne shared details of her relationship with him, he also shared about a strange experience he had when back at home in the summer. One of their high school teachers, who everyone said fancied him back in high school, had come on to him. He was very drunk at the time but managed to extricate himself and go home.
That Christmas, Marianne went home. This is when we get to see how Marianne is abused at home. Her brother spits at her and grabs her, while her mother defends him and tells her it’s preparation for adult life.
When she thinks about how little she respects him [Alan], she feels disgusting and begins to hate herself, and these feelings trigger in her an overwhelming desire to be subjugated and in a way broken.
Connell wasn’t seeing anyone for a while, but after a few months, he started dating Helen. That summer, he won a scholarship (along with Marianne and others) that make life much easier. He travelled around Europe – Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, Ljubljana. In each city, he did three things: called Helen, emailed Marianne and texted his mother. He felt great pleasure in seeing Helen on their calls and proud of their “normal, good relationship).
To be known as her boyfriend plants him firmly in the social world, establishes him as an acceptable person, someone with a particular status, someone whose conversational silences are thoughtful rather than socially awkward.
Marianne was in Trieste with Jamie and her friend Peggy. Connell and his friends stopped by for a visit. After an altercation between Jamie and Marianne, Marianne and Connell were alone. He comforted her by stroking her hair. He held her while she confessed.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.
Months later, Marianne was in Sweden for her year of study abroad. She started going out with another dominant man, Lukas.
You’re worthless, Lukas likes to tell her. You’re nothing. And she feels like nothing, an absence to be forcibly filled in. It isn’t that she likes the feeling, but it relieves her somehow.
She did not believe that Lukas loved her, even though he claimed he did. She accepted there is some attraction, but not love. And eventually, she extricated herself from him. She refused his domination one day and walked out, knowing she would never see him again. Then she went back and made him delete all the pictures he had of her, nudes he’d taken during her submission. After Jamie shared intimate details of their relationship, she wanted to be careful.
It was as if her life was over. How long had that feeling lasted? Two weeks, or more? Then it went away, and a certain short chapter of her youth had concluded, and she had survived it, it was done.
Almost three years after they moved away, one of Connell’s friends, died of suicide. It was a shock to everyone, and Connell became depressed. He struggled with his mental health for a while, getting help from a college counselor.
… here I am on the floor, he thought. Is life so much worse here than it would be on the bed, or even in a totally different location? No, life is exactly the same. Life is the thing you bring with you inside your own head.
Thinking about Rob, Connell realized how much they shared. Just as Rob had wanted to be normal, so had Connell.
He [Connell] had just wanted to be normal, to conceal the parts of himself that he found shameful and confusing. It was Marianne who had shown him other things were possible. Life was different after that; maybe he had never understood how different it was.
Marianne and Connell started talking on Skype almost every night. He doesn’t tell her what people have been saying about her and Jaime, the things Jamie has spread about her since they broke up.
When her friends Evelyn and Joanna get married, Marianne is very happy for them. She celebrates their happiness, but does not think it’s available for her:
It gives Marianne a window onto real happiness, though a window she cannot open herself or ever climb through.
(Almost) Full Circle
When Marianne and Connell meet again while staying with their family that summer, they admit that they are never lonely with each other. They fall into each other once more.
Her body is just an item of property, and though it has been handed around and misused in various ways, it has somehow always belonged to him, and she feels like returning it to him now.
When she asks him to hit her, that puts an end to it. He’s afraid her even though he know he would die for her.
She’s missing some primal instinct, self-defense or self-preservation, which makes other human beings comprehensible.
She realizes that the gulf between them has grown.
Now she knows that in the intervening years Connell has been growing slowly more adjusted to the world, a process of adjustment that has been steady if sometimes painful, while she herself has been degenerating, moving further and further from wholesomeness, becoming something unrecognizably debased, and they have nothing left in common at all.
Back at home, Marianne and Alan had an altercation, and he threw a bottle at her. She was hurt and called Connell for help, apologizing for needing help.
In a fury, Connell drove to pick her up. After settling her inside the car, he went inside and threatened Alan if he ever hurt her again.
The Ending of Normal People
It’s February 2015 and Marianne and Connell are living together. People have forgotten about Marianne. Connell is editing the college literary magazine.
He understood that it wasn’t necessary to hurt her: he could let her submit willingly, without violence
They had a loving relationship, where for the first time, Connell showed public displays of affection towards her. Yet, Marianne knew thar their relationship made them different people. She didn’t completely understand him, in ways that his student Sadie did. She even wondered whether Connell was in love with Sadie, who knew he’d applied to a program in New York when she didn’t.
When Connell is offered a place for rhe MFA in New York, he says he can’t go without her. But she tells him to go, that she’ll still be there
What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. 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. You should go, she says. I’ll always be here. You know that.
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