Booksmart, Late-Capitalist, Bougie and Banal: Sally Rooney’s Normal People

There’s a wave of hype surrounding the BBC Three miniseries adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best-selling second novel Normal People (2018). The trailer plays rather like a forgettable teen drama. It features extremely good-looking people exchanging banal romantic lines, (“It’s funny, the decisions you make when you like someone, then your whole life is different”) and longing gazes across crowded rooms to tepid indie music.

With the release of the series, there has been renewed interest in Rooney, her novel, and her position as a seminal millennial writer. I fall squarely into the book’s intended readership and, judging by critical agreement, was about to have my millenial mind blown. It never happened. Unfortunately, my response to both Rooney’s novel and the subsequent series resembled that of an elderly curmudgeon, namely Will Self, who, in one of the only negative reviews of the novel writes:

What’s now regarded as serious literature would, 10 or 20 years ago, have been regarded as young-adult fiction. I read a few pages of the Sally Rooney book. It may say things that millennials want to hear reflected back at them, but it’s very simple stuff with no literary ambition that I can see.

I begrudgingly agree with Sefl’s cantankerous analysis. It’s not that Normal People is a bad book — it’s just rather bland. Rooney’s writing is often plodding and its protagonists Marianne and Connell not all that compelling, often to the point of archetypal. The book is populated with bullying teenagers, evil boyfriends, and abusive family members who are not so much “normal” as stock. There is little nuance, for example, in Marianne’s relation to her brother and mother, who are unashamedly and almost comically cruel and austere, (“Denise decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression toward Marianne as a way of expressing themselves… She believes Marianne lacks “warmth,” by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.”)

Supposedly concerned with how the character’s emotional lives are conditioned by economic precarity, the novel frequently falls into escapism. The characters do not meaningfully interrogate themselves, their surroundings, or each other. While millennial fiction is often categorised as sardonic and astute, Normal People never offers any challenging observations about its subjects. In one much-cited passage ridiculed on Goodreads, Rooney’s writing verges on embarrassing with its inelegance.

When Jamie’s story is finished, Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing away people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of the bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

So what is Normal People actually about? Well, it’s an occasionally touching, often baffling romance set in Ireland. The novel centres around the unexpected love affair of two people: the clever and astute Marianne, whom Rooney often reminds us is not like “normal people,” and Connell, a shy, handsome high school football star that secretly reads a lot. A large portion of the book’s first act is not unlike that of a John Hughes movie though admittedly the class sparring is more complicated. Connell’s mother is a cleaner who had him when she was 17, while Marianne’s family is rich, which doesn’t do much for her social standing in post-recession Ireland. Marriane is bullied by Connell’s popular working-class friends for her wealth, but also, as Rooney reminds us, because she’s not like “normal people.” Connell occasionally has sex with Marianne, but insists their trysts remain secret because associating with her might tarnish his image.

Later, at Trinity College, the tables have turned. Marianne is now lusted after and—while she is vaguely interested in the economy and Gaza—is mainly preoccupied with dating drama. Connell is there too; he’s still stoic and now he’s read Jane Austen. Connell and Marianne love each other and seemingly want to commit but appear resolved in making their relationship needlessly turbulent. A plot device not done well can be extremely irritating and this is the case with Marianne and Connell’s confusing dynamic. We are never really given any explanation for why Marrianne and Connell keep miscommunicating, though Rooney offers bread crumbs that supposedly hint at the issues marring their relationship  (she likes bondage and her brother slaps her; Connell can’t understand the point of reading fiction). There is a painfully on-the-nose passage where Marianne cries while watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and talks about how she’s not a “normal person.” Their consistent on-again-off again love affair hinges on frustratingly obvious miscommunication without which their humourless relationship could not continue.

Tin-can liberation

Rooney is at ease writing Marianne’s character. And, had this been a novel focused solely on her experience, it might have been an interesting exploration of an over-educated woman in late-capitalist society a la Halle Butler’s The New Me. However, the inclusion of Connell and the insistence on melodrama — Marianne is saved from the evil men in her life not once but three times by Connell — means the novel remains unchallenging and keeps the characters in comfortable, predictably heteronormative territory. Rooney’s goals for her characters are quite conservative — Connell is the one who, by the novel’s swift conclusion, is accepted into a prestigious writing program in New York — and often confusing.

This is best explored in an odd rant by Connell, which presumably reflects Rooney’s own sentiments:

Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.

All things considered, this is quite a strange observation to be made in a bestselling fiction novel by a character who ultimately pursues a career in the bourgeois literary world.

It’s also hard to be sympathetic to Marianne because she consistently dates evil men while Connell, whom she adores, just hangs out in her periphery being a “good guy.” Marianne constantly acts in a way that sabotages her happiness and is beneath her supposed intelligence which of course is credible, people are complicated, though it seems largely in service of thrusting an already threadbare story along while  underlining Connell’s sweetness with all the subtlety of a car commercial.

Of course, novels don’t necessarily need to have a thrilling plot to be compelling or significant. Amongst critics there seems a general consensus that Normal People was not “just a romance,” but an astute commentary of social class. Rooney is a Marxist, which she talks about in nearly every interview she gives. Indeed, Rooney foregrounds social class, but that’s hardly revelatory. Though Rooney has articulated that Normal People isn’t a novel about her political leanings, critical reception and analysis seems to have ignored her and the book and the world it occupies — being promoted so heavily by a publishing giant, a miniseries adaptation (with Spotify playlist tie-ins) as well as the characters’ often hazy interpretation of the world around them — comes off as nauseating champagne socialism for all Rooney’s Marxist preoccupations and criticism of the literary elite.

Normal People’s main failure is subtlety. There may be some insights into fiscal conditions in Ireland, class dynamics, and even socialism, but they are only mentioned in passing. Within the conventional melodrama, Rooney is a maladroit storyteller. That Connell is strong and handsome and cannot bear the idea of Marianne in physical pain speaks to the book’s archetypal masculine-romantic-hero trappings. Connell may have power over Marianne but he’s indisputably decent at heart without any challenging traits other than, the again, archetypal inability to articulate his feelings. Rooney tells us Marianne is isolated, lonely and also very smart but she never actually shows us Marianne’s supposedly exceptional intelligence or feelings of remoteness. Marianne may have been intended to appear deeply flawed, or difficult, but we only ever get a sense of her isolation through her persistent sexual degradation at the hands of men. As a character, Marianne is a cipher, inherently desirable to men and envied by women.

Certainly, it’s fine to not like a book and I could’ve easily forgotten about it if it weren’t for the incessant hype around it that made me doubt myself for the better half of a year. Was I the only person that didn’t like Normal People? I found myself infuriated whenever someone brought it up. With its television adaption airing, I felt the time was ripe to revisit what it was that positioned the novel for success.

In a review titled “Normal People Will Be Hard to Beat as Book of the Year,” Constance Grady writes:

Never once does Normal People try to prove its intelligence with coldness. Never once does it allow its romance to overwhelm the clarity of its prose. It takes a knife to its central relationship, slicing it apart to examine its dysfunctional power dynamics and never flinching away from the mess it uncovers — but it also allows that relationship to feel genuine and meaningful and even sweet.

Then a few paragraphs later:

Outside of this central relationship, however, the characters are often flat. Marianne is surrounded by monstrous sadists with no discernible personality traits beyond their sadism, the better to put Connell’s earnest sweetness into contrast. Connell is surrounded by dull and angelic women, the better to highlight Marianne’s spiky brilliance. And the twists and turns of their relationship are occasionally spurred by miscommunications and misunderstandings that verge on sitcom wackiness.

Why is this the “book of the year” that’s going to be “tough to beat?” Reviewers talked about Normal People as though Rooney was the second coming of Tolstoy and that this was the millennial answer to Anna Karenina. Next to Otessa Mosfegh’s much superior story of disaffected youth in a late-capitalist world, My Year of Rest and Relaxation or Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, the hype around Normal People is perplexing.

Perhaps the reason why Normal People has struck such a chord is that at its core the central romance was indeed sweet and occasionally affecting. It’s nice to read a love story that has something to say, even if that something is not much. The fairly simple characterisation speaks to the novel’s popularity in a way My Year of Rest and Relaxation cannot. While Connell and Marianne are easy characters going through the motions of their tediously vanilla romance, Mosefgh’s unnamed protagonist is an isolated and often cruel misanthrope. Speaking plainly, not many people want to watch a miniseries about a bitter cynic who sleeps for a year, as well fleshed out as her character may be.

There is something to be said here for the general disdain people seem to have for romance novels. It seems, from a critical perspective, calling Normal People a simple romance somehow cheapens it. So now it’s more. It’s a brilliant social drama, with communist over-tones that also represents the millennial experience. Normal People’s trappings of quasi-socialism make it, ironically, a comfortably bourgeois romance novel to enjoy in the way that Twilight, for example, cost anyone who enjoyed it a lot of social capital. There is something vaguely misogynistic about the shame associated with the romance genre. Romance is frivolous and sentimental, too feminine. If you enjoy romance in your literature, it’s more acceptable to be caught with Love In the Time of Cholera than it is to be caught with a Danielle Steele book.

Following this logic, perhaps we are searching for something where there is nothing to be found. We want to read books by women that are social commentaries, and we want our romances to be profound. Most condescendingly, we want this for the benefit of women. But it can’t just be what it is. Rooney is a Trinity College graduate with a background in debate, so how could she write a perfectly ordinary romance novel? Normal People is enjoyable as a romance and makes more sense when read as such. Rooney may not exactly be Emily Bronte, but she’s definitely not in the same boat as Stephanie Meyer either.

I began to wonder if many of the critics lauding this book as being a sort of Marxist romance set to a Carly Rae Jepson song were part of the Boomer, Gen X culterati impressed that millennials can indeed write, enjoy reading books or have heard of Friedrich Engels. Almost every review I read makes a point to call Rooney a “millennial writer” or “the first great millennial novelist”. The frenzied praise conjures to mind the curious state of hype these days surrounding women who create topical content.

As a cultural spectator, I have seen this play out a few times. The most recent example I can point to is Olivia Wilde’s film Booksmart, which was heralded by critics as “sensational masterpiece and a miracle” and in a more nauseating review “a riotous, candy-covered celebration of sisterhood” (a guy wrote that). Despite the giddy critical review, Booksmart has received mainly a mixed audience score on Metacritic. No one I know has seen it and more often, never even heard of it, despite critics’ assurances that it will be quoted and beloved by young people. And this makes odd sense; Booksmart is inhabited by exactly the type of female characters our current critical climate loves and so wants us to love too. It’s full of vapid “girlboss” platitudes and occupies a world where Trumpism is non-existent. Therefore, the characters don’t face any of the difficulties of the toxic quagmire women wade into on a daily basis. Which is fine. Not all art has to relentlessly reflect reality, but the conversation around Booksmart suggests a very different film to the saccharine one that I watched.

Normally not-normally normal

Similarly, after being bombarded by reviews proclaiming the genius of Fleabag (“magisterial ” and “immaculate”) I relented and finally watched it. Enjoyable as it was, I mainly found myself perplexed (and to an extent, put off) by its hysterical publicity and feeling that I was somehow betraying my gender because I preferred the gross-out voyeurism of Peep Show. What seems to have made Fleabag such a hit with critics is not that it is a particularly interesting commentary on feminism per se, but rather what we want to see in our modern females (real and fictional) of today. They must be “accessibly” attractive, unapologetic, brazen, like sex and have a lot of it and be gross enough to be relatable, but not repulsive. There is a scene in the second season which enforces this sentiment, when the protagonist (Pheobe Waller Bridge) says something along the lines of, “I think I’d be better feminist if I had bigger tits.” It’s easily digestible complexity, in which feminism and grappling to be a decent one is distilled into aesthetics and bawdy sex jokes. It’s a character trope that’s often called genius and daring to the point of redundant hyperbole.

Culturally we are so deprived of women who write (flawed) women (that many of these current female icons are extremely well-educated, often wealthy and white says a lot of who we give license to tell “relatable” female stories), that when they do arrive, we leap at the chance to call them messiahs who intricately understand the female experience or indeed any experience. The stories of pretty, disaffected hetero millennials discussing their fiscal precarity while dispassionately self-destructing and having sex with other pretty, disaffected hetero millennials might be enjoyable or even touching; but they are hardly revolutionary or universal.

So, why are we subjecting these perfectly good creations by white millenial women to such exaggerated discourse? The praise heaped at productions like Fleabag, Girls, Booksmart or indeed Normal People, again seems to verge on patriarchal. We commend women who make anything good with unchecked overstatements. There are other equally if not more affecting female stories told by women that are often denied the frenzied praise their more represented counterparts receive, such as Mati Diop’s gorgeously prescient Atlantics- frequently reduced by critics to a “refugee love story” despite the plot not being about refugees at all but the women left in their wake — or Lulu Wang’s appallingly ignored The Farewell. Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, which predated Fleabag’s broadcast by a year and is decidedly much more working class and much less white, never received the frantic transatlantic adoration thrust upon the Waller-Bridge’s chronicles of the English gentry. That’s not to say that stories about the white elite shouldn’t be told, but why are we giving the generation-defining label so readily to them? Why are they so “relatable”?

When we bestow such lofty praise on women, we also doom them to fail. One need only look at the hysterical discourse surrounding Lena Dunham for evidence of this. The fact that Girls was greenlit without any script or any real plot speaks more of the people who scrambled to give Dunham a voice than of Dunham herself. Since Girls’ first airing in 2012, Dunham has more or less been denigrated by the public from “voice of a generation” to out-of-touch, spoiled white feminist of the elite. Dunham’s New York may well be oddly racially homogenous and ignorant of real life experiences, but why were we demanding a show about four wealthy, discontented white girls be a bastion of universal truths? In hating Dunham and Girls, it seems we are not so much hating Dunham herself than the pedestal that critics put her on.

The often peculiarly middle class preoccupation with self-destruction while being lovably bitchy is not something huge swathes of women can relate to or indeed afford, though the critical consensus would have you believe that this is very typical behaviour of the modern woman. We are often presented with books, TV shows and films with what we are told defines the experience of being a woman today – and even if these characters are indeed interesting and the journey enjoyable, it’s still confusing to be inundated with caricatures that critical Western society has deemed a truth.

When looking at a lot of these stories, I don’t see the “badass,” “liberated” or defiant “girl bosses” pedaled by critics. Instead, these characters hint at the confusing and excruciating experience of being a woman in a society that in equal parts fetishes you and hates you. In one of the few stinging observations that I genuinely responded to in Normal People was a moment when Marianne’s intense self-loathing for herself is painfully laid bare:

…because he has to live with the fact that he had sex with her, of his own free choice, and he liked it. That says more about him, the supposedly ordinary and healthy person, than it does about her.

Marianne measures her self-worth within a toxic system that, despite what we so want to believe, does not value a woman as a human. Instead it has taught us to calculate our value in relation to the patriarchy. In Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays a woman who self-sabotages all her relationships and uses meaningless sex as an emotional crutch to deal with a past trauma. In making someone like Dunham the de facto voice of disaffected white women we have in turn punished whatever she has accomplished.

Amidst all this hysterical searching for strong female voices of the moment, the cultural climate has created a stock character as a substitute for a 3-dimensional feminist of both the creator and the character. If anything, these stories are not evidence of a powerful resurgence in asserting a strong female character, but are instead evidence that society has failed and continues to fail women, whose story arcs often hinge on them hating themselves and who do not afford all women of all backgrounds an equal footing.

These are not universal stories, but very particular or very vague ones despite the current public discussion on exactly what or who decides on the female experience. We need to recognise that it’s fine if not every piece of art is a global zeitgeist. In fact, it’s important that we do so.

Ashleigh McCulloch is a writer and jeweller from Johannesburg. She studied journalism in Cape Town and writes, reads and watches movies when she’s not making jewellery. She is interested in media that explores gender dynamics, decolonial forms and the problematics of nostalgia. She is currently living in Johannesburg.