Rating: 3 stars
Marianne lives in a small town in the west of Ireland; her family are obviously wealthy but she attends the same school as Connell, whose mother Lorraine cleans the “white mansion” where Marianne, her mother and brother Alan live. Alan is a mean bully, treating Marianne with a casual violent contempt, knowing she is a frightened loner. Against the odds, Marianne and Connell strike up a friendship, having a respect for each other’s intelligence and a love of facts and learning. In school they never speak to each other – she’s quiet, friendless, and he’s a popular member of the soccer team, adored by all.
Their friendship rapidly becomes an affair, secret from their families and his friends until the night of the fundraiser when he rescues her from older bullying and taunting gate-crashers, and she reveals that her late father used to hit her mother. At the point in her life when most of her school colleagues are out having fun, Marianne’s life is already dominated by a combination of love of learning, and of being a repeated victim of violence. She and Connell both apply to study at Trinity College, Dublin, but by the time their studies start their relationship has foundered.
Just months later, at university, Connell and Marianne’s positions are reversed: she’s now the centre of a bright social set, well-to-do, attractive and vivacious; he’s struggling on the fringes, feeling socially out of his depth. It didn’t seem at all real to me that just months after their awkward break up, after which she abruptly leaves school, she is now the popular centre of attention among a group of rich and confident friends. The barriers which existed between her and and her school peer group had seemed far more to do with what she was inherently like, introverted and bookish, than with the wealth and social gap between her and them. I found it hard to credit that in the space of the summer vacation she’d suddenly changed into a confident party-goer.
Gradually they inch back into a relationship, but again it’s fated not to last. The pattern of their lives is set. They understand each other better than anyone else, they love each other, but they can never be together for long. Marianne’s doomed to have a series of difficult, often physically and verbally violent relationships; Connell is doomed to be with people who don’t share or understand his feelings for the world or for literature. They drift together and drift apart repeatedly, although, as time goes on, when they’re apart they constantly communicate, each telling the other of ideas, thoughts and feelings which no one else is told, not even their current partners.
I loved the opening section of Normal People, titled January 2011, with its descriptions of growing young relationships, and of what it is like for some educated and articulate people to be young in the 21st century, but, for me, the book faded away and lost my interest, despite its being under 270 pages in length, so that long before its final section, February 2015, I really wanted Marianne and Connell to have moved forward in their lives and become more interesting. Perhaps I’m too old and jaundiced, or perhaps I have read too many books! Clearly not only most reviewers but the Costa Book Awards panel disagreed with me, as this has been awarded the Costa novel of the year for 2018.
Reviewed by Daisy