Long have men asked: How can women care about frivolous things when the world is so clearly on fire with inequity and corruption? Our comeback is simple: We can hold two thoughts in our heads at once. Of course a person can be consumed by reality television even while bearing witness to daily global atrocities. Irish author Sally Rooney’s novels exist in this headspace, where romantic obsession, matters of the body, social media, and just a touch of narcissism exist coterminously with awareness of and concern about the wider world.
Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friends, was a novel of ideas that also featured plenty of good sex and straightforward, yet lovely prose, and her second novel, Normal People, follows suit. Normal People is a love story about two smart, difficult young people, Marianne and Connell, who think their problems are special to them. Early on in their relationship, Connell recommends that Marianne read philosopher Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. In exchange, she lends him her copy of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.They know that the world is bigger than their personal struggles but sometimes—as teenagers often do—they forget.
Marianne and Connell have a secret, high-intensity romance in high school in West Ireland, where being a working-class person who enjoys sports and drinking has social capital. Connell is a cool jock with a sensitive, brainy side, and Marianne is a studious loner from a wealthy family. Marianne and Connell embody some of the oldest tropes from literature and teen movies. She’s the poor little rich girl, the outcast who’s been secretly beautiful all along, who just needs the attention of the right man to blossom. Connell is the football star who is required to take the bitchy popular girl to the high school debs’ ball even when the loner has caught his eye.
The novel goes on to follow their on-again-off-again relationship after they both enroll at Dublin’s posh Trinity College, where intellectual curiosity (and money!) go a long way towards acceptance. Marianne finally finds her footing as Connell falters—he's a scholarship student who doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the moneyed crowd.
Just like the wealthy subject of “Common People,” the 1995 Pulp song with a notably similar title to Rooney’s novel, Marianne doesn’t quite grasp how good she’s got it. She cares about the world, hates capitalism, and also has the privilege to say things like, “Money is a social construct,” when her friend is stuck working an office job. Even the most devout socialists are not always likable or self-aware. Marianne is proof. But Rooney also sets up a clear moral line between Marianne’s family and Connell’s that isn’t concerned with nuance: Marianne’s rich family members are fairytale villain levels of evil (Marianne’s late father abused her and, now, her brother does—while her mother belittles her) while Connell’s hardworking young mother who struggles to get by in menial jobs is just about a saint. The dichotomy only grows as the novel progresses.
Connell, too, would like to believe that class is not a great societal divide. When Connell’s mother, a housecleaner employed at Marianne’s home, questions whether Marianne’s family would accept him, Connell scoffs, “She doesn’t mind you cleaning their house but she doesn’t want your son hanging around with her daughter? What an absolute joke. That’s like something from nineteenth-century times, I’m actually laughing at that.” Connell has thoroughly read his Jane Austen, and he chooses to believe the class issues by which her characters are so preoccupied are ancient history.
As a plot device in a novel, it is—it allows Marianne and Connell to continue teasing out their will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic in college. But anyone who has followed the recent college admissions scandal might suspect that meritocracy is a farce, and that the wealthy have workarounds that we don’t even know about. And so, even though Connell earns a scholarship to Trinity and enjoys being “rich-adjacent,” he also has to work through school, a fact that Marianne tends to overlook, and one that creates hardships in their relationship. Connell realizes that they never talk about money and it’s Marianne’s utter lack of awareness that keeps them apart more often than not.
Rooney keeps Marianne and Connell in their own little world, capturing that feeling when there’s someone in the room you want to keep your eye on and you sense their presence in every cell of your body, even if you’re not together. Their love story is fragmented, with time leaping from chapter to chapter, so that at the start of every new one, readers must reorient themselves to where Marianne and Connell are located in life, what’s gone right and what hasn’t, and how they circle back to each other.
It’s also important to remember the changes in the world outside of Marianne and Connell: that Ireland only ended its ban on abortion in May of 2018, and that portrayals of teenage sex—especially hot teenage sex, which Sally Rooney writes beautifully—is still transgressive. “Art is purposeless without a sense of right and wrong,” says Marianne towards the end of the novel, an apt summation of why Normal People feels so important right now. For all of its more trifling pleasures, Normal People is a work of art itself.