Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4.5)
I found Normal People to be frustratingly realistic and at times hard to read. It made me consider my own life and relationships, both in terms of my flaws and my wants. I ached watching Connell and Marianne oscillate around each other's lives, watching the small moments of intimacy and the hard-edged moments emptiness. Ultimately, Normal People is a book about people. While that may seem obvious, given the title, and overly reductionist, the novel says more about how we learn, grow, and become than anything I've read up to it.
This is one of those books that I don't have to like in order to enjoy it. In fact, reading Normal People is a bit like watching a car wreck in reverse, mostly in the sense that knowing how life is doesn't make it any easier to digest the snapshots we get of Marianne and Connell's.
As far as plot goes, it's one of those deep character-driven stories that makes you ache at the reality of it, flinch away from all the bits of yourself that you see in these two characters.
Connell is the high school golden boy, a little reserved but liked well-enough that he fits effortlessly into the landscape around him. The whole school is his comfort zone, so he never has to try too hard or get pushed too far.
Marianne is the opposite. Outcasted as the weird girl, she's mostly ignored throughout high school, making it impossible for anyone to really know her or her life outside. To Connell and the others, she comes across as self-assured, but really she's just grown up too fast to really worry about much of what other students her age do.
Like all good romances (of which I'm not sure Normal People qualifies), the two collide accidentally, drawn from the fringes of each other's lives into something more. Something neither of them want to name for entirely opposite reasons. They come together again and again, stepping away from their own lives in those moments, until they both end up at Dublin's Trinity College, where the roles of their childhoods are irrevocably reversed.
Free from her stifling homelife and the stigmas of who she was, Marianne seems different to Connell, more brave, brazen, and he's shocked that she's actually being seen, a feat that was once reserved for him, in private. Something that gave him control over the tide of their relationship. Connell, on the other hand, took a drastic step away from the direction his life was going to go and finds himself floundering in college. No longer encased in a microcosm of society where he has been known his entire life, Connell struggles to know himself and his place away from the default friends he kept throughout school.
Normal People is a novel about what happens in the small moments. It's about waking up and growing up and learning to know yourself separate from the version of you that exists to others, even those whose view you wish to see yourself. It's unflinchingly realistic, the characters finely flawed, and the relationship both beautiful and detrimental, and likely codependent in the most comforting and dangerous way.
It's hard not to enjoy Normal People, even as frustration followed me through the pages to the very end. I think the mark of a good book is that it's able to rope you in and make you considerate of the characters' wants and needs over your own desire for neat and tidy story. What I felt when reading this novel - the hope that the characters would find themselves faster, for the sake of preserving their relationship, improving their self-image, and making it at all possible to heal inside of something that both continues to harm you and make you feel seen - was organic, and I still think of Marianne and Connell as though they might continue to grow off the pages.