People misunderstand one another in a Sally Rooney novel. Two characters at a party, for example, try to discuss “a film they had both seen, but it transpired that they were thinking of two different films, which put a halt to the discussion.” People misinterpret motives, avoid painful (but important) topics of conversation, misread the tone of a text message or email. Friendships and relationships founder over these misunderstandings; bad life choices abound.
Since Rooney burst onto the literary scene in 2017, the Irish novelist, now 28, has attracted passionate fans who feel as if they personally know her characters — 20-somethings with high ideals (Marxism, for example), ironic banter and almost crippling self-consciousness. Sarah Jessica Parker has raved about her writing on Instagram; critics pile on superlatives. Rooney has even been billed the “first great millennial novelist.”
Rooney’s debut, “Conversations With Friends” (Hogarth, 325 pp., $17 paper), featured an unconventional love quadrangle. Frances and Bobbi are 21-year-old students at Trinity College in Dublin, former lovers and now friends who perform spoken-word poetry together. At the opening of the novel, they have been invited to the showplace home of an older couple, Melissa and Nick, for a drink. Melissa is a “slightly famous” writer interested in profiling the young poets; her husband, Nick, is a handsome, reserved actor. Drinks are followed by dinner a few days later, and then Melissa’s drunken birthday party, at which Frances winds up kissing Nick in a utility room — bad idea, right?
Soon Frances and Nick are engaged in a full-fledged affair, kept secret from Melissa and Bobbi, even as the foursome share a vacation house in France and run into one another around Dublin. Ill-advised extramarital affairs have been the stuff of novels since the 18th century, but Rooney brings a deadpan contemporary gaze to the couple’s near-torturous vacillations. Things get even more complicated when first Bobbi, then Melissa, get wind of the affair.
This could be the stuff of a soap opera, or morality play, but Rooney's sly sense of humor colors the proceedings. Take this exchange:
“So is this just sex,” Frances asks Nick, “or do you actually like me?”
“Frances, you’re drunk,” he replies.
“Don’t feel bad. … It’s terribly enjoyable. I may have mentioned that before.”
“Only a couple of times. But I’d like it in writing if possible. Just something permanent that I can look at on my deathbed.”
For all its wit, “Conversations” is a serious novel, touching on issues of class, women’s health, alcoholism and more. Above all, it is a shrewd study of human psychology with characters as maddening and lovable as your own friends.
Now Rooney’s new novel, “Normal People” (Hogarth, 273 pp., $26 ), arrives on these shores garlanded with accolades, including a spot on the Man Booker Prize longlist. We meet its young protagonists, Connell and Marianne, while they are still in high school in western Ireland. She comes from a dysfunctional wealthy family; his mom cleans house for her mom. He is popular at school; she is socially unacceptable — “considered an object of disgust” is the phrase Rooney uses. (Rooney gets high school just right.)
Despite the gulf between them, Connell and Marianne are attracted to one another and begin a romantic relationship that he initially insists they keep secret. Although this is painful for Marianne, she knows that Connell marks a turning point for her: “She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person,” Rooney writes. “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.”
The novel jumps forward, a few months at a time, from January 2011 to February 2015. During that time Connell and Marianne will leave their hometown to attend Trinity in Dublin; there she makes friends and achieves social standing; he feels lost and denigrated as a “culchie,” or hick. Throughout these years they fall apart and come together again and again; though they manage to miscommunicate and cause one another pain, they share an intense connection: “It’s not like this with other people,” Marianne tells him, and he agrees — though she senses that he may be holding something back.
And so it goes in Rooneyland, as in real life. If “Conversations With Friends” was distinguished by its cleverness and unblinking observations, “Normal People” plumbs even deeper. I felt a real melancholy when I left these characters, as unsure of their futures as ever. With two stellar novels to her name, and more surely to come, the “first great millennial novelist” will lose that generational qualifier very soon.