- - Thursday, June 27, 2019


By Sally Rooney

Hogarth, $26, 273 pages

One of the hardest things for a novelist to do is to make small things seem big, big in the sense of portentous. In this, her second highly-praised novel, Ms. Rooney does that with deceptive ease; although the author has given but a hint, the reader knows something of great importance will happen down the road — and the reader is right.

One critic, in reviewing “Conversations With Friends,” Sally Rooney’s first novel, praised her “psychiatric portraiture,” which is an apt description of what she achieves in “Normal People.” That first book came out in 2017, the same year The Sunday London Times gave Ms. Rooney the Young Writer of the Year Award. Born in the west of Ireland, she has yet to turn 30. Sigh.

The setting for this coming-of-age novel is deceptively simple. When we first meet Irish high school students Marianne and Connell, both are top students, but he’s the golden boy, the quiet student-athlete (with emphasis on both sides of the hyphen), and she’s the oddball misfit. He has gobs of friends and admirers; she has none. And yet they both sense a connection.

Ms. Rooney tips her hand up front with an epigraph from George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda”: “It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which has been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.”

One of the many interesting elements of this novel is that the “conversion” is mutual; it happens to both of them. And it’s a process rather than a single road-to-Damascus event.

Complicating the nascent romance is the social-status fact that Connell’s mother works for Marianne’s — as a cleaning lady. But there’s no denying the attraction. As Ms. Rooney writes early in the novel: “If [Marianne] was different with Connell, the difference was not happening within herself, in her personhood, but in between them, in the dynamic. Sometimes she made him laugh, but other days he was taciturn, inscrut-able, and after he left she would feel high, nervous, at once energetic and terribly drained.”

After he kisses her for the first time, he says, “Don’t go telling people in school about this, okay?” That’s of course rude and hurtful, but her reply is pathetic, “Like I would talk to anyone in school.”

That’s how things stand between them throughout the last years of high school, which Irish kids simply call “school.” Then, when the main characters get to university, the impressive Trinity College in Dublin — Connell on scholarship — the author does something very interesting. She reverses the roles. The girl is transformed but the boy is intimidated by the unfamiliar surroundings. Marianne blossoms (at a dance one of the popular girls looks at her and says, “Don’t you scrub up well?) but Connell, away from his “mates” and the soccer field, retreats into his shell, becoming the odd one.

For the next several years, while they meet, go out and sleep with other people, they stay in frequent touch, both in person and by that worldwide aide to love and friendship, the cellphone, neither one wanting to cut the fundamental cord of what they have felt and do feel for one another. Ms. Rooney paints this intriguing picture in her characteristically spare and economical prose, which captures the reader in a wonderful kind of literary quicksand.

We see that while Connell and his single-parent mother have a near-ideal relationship, Marianne’s family life, while financially advantageous, is in fact the opposite. One Christmas, Marianne’s mother gives her 500 euros in a plain brown envelope with no card or note. And Marianne’s slightly older brother, jealous of her superior academic achievements, abuses her both verbally and physically. All of this the girl keeps to herself, telling not even Connell.

When he encounters her at, say, a party, he marvels at the degree of social gracefulness she’s acquired. For her part, she marvels at his looks and natural grace, but noticing her high opinion of him is not universal. Nonetheless, while Marianne has the bad habit of getting herself in trouble with bad men, Connell has the good habit of coming to her rescue. Some readers may find this contrary to real life, i.e. too good to be true, but, hey, we’re talking fiction here.

One of the distinct pleasures to be found in this novel is the author’s prose style, which is simultaneously effective and evocative.

All of what Sally Rooney tells us in “Normal People” is told with captivating understatement and charm, so that the reader can’t help but wonder what this most talented writer will do when she turns, as she must, to more adult themes. When The London Times gave Sally Rooney that award in 2017, it made the right call.

• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

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