Friday, August 25, 2023

Normal People was one of the best books I read during the pandemic

Not a lot happens in Normal People (the book; I haven’t yet watched the Hulu series) but then again, every little thing is meticulously and enjoyably described in the lives of the two central characters. It’s an odd mix that makes for a page turner by Ireland’s Sally Rooney. 

4 out of 5 stars

Here is a summary I wrote and never published a couple of years ago when I read the novel during the pandemic (with lots of spoilers included):

Connell Waldron and Marianne, who have a relationship that is unknown to their classmates and happens because Connell’s mom Lorraine is the housekeeper for Marianne’s rich family.

She doesn’t participate in any school activities but is mandated one day to go watch the soccer game, during which Connell scores a big goal and she finds herself becoming attracted to him. One day in her room, he gives her her first kiss. Another day, she asks if he’ll take off her clothes but he declines because his mother is cleaning downstairs.

They have sex for the first time, she as a virgin, at his house. His mom returns, finds him washing his sheets, and talks openly about how she knows what he’s up to and that she “must be the most permissive mother” and that he should at least be wearing protection. As they continue to experiment with sex, Connell wonders why he is with her, considering that she is not particularly attractive.

Marianne decides to drink for a change at the town’s nightclub. Karen and Connell are nice to her but Rachel is mean and a guy named Pat squeezes and hurts her boob. Marianne goes back to Connell’s house and she says her dad used to hit her and her mom, and Connell confesses that he loves her. His friends begin to act like they know Connell has slept with Marianne and it forces him to go into cold sweats and puke one morning at school. He eventually tells her he’s taking Rachel to the Debs, which causes her to be infuriated and quit school.

When Connell returns home in the fall from college in Dublin, he and Marianne see each other at a party. He tells her he broke up with Rachel in the summer. He had not enjoyed their relationship. 

In the spring, the two of them go to a party even though Connell is now dating Theresa. Marianne indulges in coke, weed, and alcohol with her wild friend Peggy and successful friend Joanna. She tries to get Connell to have sex with her but he won’t do it. But days later they do. A few months later, they admit their relationship to Peggy, who tries to get them to have a threesome, but they are both uncomfortable with the idea. 

Connell moves home for the summer while Marianne stays in Dublin. He tells her he wants to see other people.  She actually does get another boyfriend, one more of her wealth class. She later tells Connell that she has asked this new boyfriend to be rough with her during sex. One of his high school teachers, Paula Neary, tries to seduce him when he is very drunk and he runs away. He tells Marianne later and she suddenly wants to harm Ms. Neary. 

On Christmas Day, Marianne’s brother Alan told her people in town were talking about her and spit in her face. Her mom Denise also admonished her for thinking she’s special. After Connell gets mugged, he calls Marianne to borrow money for a taxi, arrives at her house, and stays after her boyfriend Jamie leaves. He tells her he’s had a girlfriend for a while which is a first in all the time they’ve been friends. They both earn scholarships. They have been writing letters to each other over these long periods apart and will continue to do so when Marianne studies abroad in Sweden in the fall. 

Connell and Helen run into Marianne one day and Helen realizes those two had a past. She then becomes determined to get to know her and finds Marianne to be self-centered and slutty. Jaimie and Marianne have a fight and Connell breaks it up. She sleeps in his room and tells him about how abusive her family is and he doesn’t understand why she’s never told him before. He tries to make out with her but she declines. 

Months later, living in Sweden, she is dating an artist named Lukas who takes her photo a lot and plays a game denigrating her after they have sex, which she likes but it depresses her. Peggy had suggested she was mentally unwell after Marianne’s breakup with Jaimie. Joanna is the only one of those friends who sticks with her. Marianne breaks up with Lukas after he tries to take nude photos of her and ties her up.

Connell sees the school psychologist and she determines he might be suicidal. (This part of the story kind of comes out of nowhere, an odd transition which must be intended to show that being apart from Marianne, when the two are clearly meant for each other, is starting to affect him. They attend their old friend Rob’s funeral (he committed suicide) and Helen is annoyed at Connell’s interactions there with Marianne, leading to their breakup two weeks later. Connell continues seeing his psychologist. He attends a reading and has an interesting conversation with the author, kickstarted by the fact that Connell says he doesn’t really see the point of readings.

Marianne moves back home and Lorraine no longer cleans her house and it’s dirty. Connell and Marianne start to make love for the first time in years but quit in the middle, she leaves, and when she gets home, her brother Alan hits her and makes her nose bleed badly. Lorraine probes Connell a little more about his relationship with Marianne, then he turns in a story he wrote to the college literary journal and they want to publish it right away. He agrees if they publish it anonymously, which they do, unedited. There were errors in the story, and he found it more distressing than pleasurable.

After Marianne leaves his house, she calls and needs help. Connell arrives at her house to find that Alan has punched her in the nose. Connell tells Alan he’ll kill him if he ever touches his sister again. Alan looks terrified. They stay at Connell’s mom’s over Christmas and kiss in front of all their old friends on New Year’s. 

Connell gets accepted to a creative writing program in New York and Marianne says she’ll wait at home for him. The end.

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