Sally Rooney’s Normal People

Brava, Sally Rooney!

I’m taken by how actions are not acted out by the ends of sentences. And by how past and present co-exist easily within ten to fifteen words (though what does that mean for subjectivity anyway?). But there is also a quality of unabashed sentimentality, love-story-like elements. Probably to propel the plot forward? I’m expecting this wry, off-kilter statement about modern — or even ancient — love out of joint, and then the telling veers back into a “love story” timbre. At first the story oscillates between both lovers’ fears of unrequitedness, but later it crescendoes in a poignant parting spawned by the kind of time that is wasted in fears of being unloved and unlovable. A theme subtle and persistent at the same time. Which the narrative voice persistently dangles and withdraws. Just like life itself. I ask myself: what AM I reading? What is this genre? It is generically unfaithful, Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Just like love?

And then, about mid-point, everything seems to become about class. Not the class hasn’t been lurking behind the drop scene all along. I refer here to mid-book, around p. 128 in my edition. I mean, are we actually getting a sophisticated, more wistful version of the West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet here? Final confession: sometimes I felt I was reading a Bollywood romance script where the lovers keep missing each other — a prolonged and tragic When Harry met Sally also — which is not necessarily a bad thing. But maybe the indecisive Man Booker Prize judges should check out Salaam Namaste or practically any Hritik Roshan movie. Subtlety and multifacetedness seem to skirt these parts entirely, like when Connell Waldron thinks of how new girlfriend Helen makes him feel “better”; don’t we just know that this means he’s going to dump her, since untormented love is never script-worthy. Is it Friend Zone all over again, then? The details are tantalizing, ambiguous, and their sums sometimes so banal.

But all this said, the very wonderful things here are the objective correlative for emotions: ‘dry yellows and greens, the orange slant of a tiled roof, a window cut flat by the sun and flashing’ (p. 164), as the cinemascope of debilitating despair. And then an almost Chandleresque evocation of the bad smell of filthy lucre: “That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.” (166).


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