This week, a new story, my friends, Irish author Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, Normal People. Normal People was a bestseller in the United States and won critical acclaim, including being longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Set in Ireland during the post 2008 economic downturn, it concerns two young Irish folk, Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, and their relationship over time as friends and lovers. An Emmy nominated television adaption of the book aired in 2020.
After the title page, we find an epigram, a quote from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: “It is one of the secrets in that change in mental poise which has been fitfully named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.”
It’s no accident that this quotation appears at the beginning. Let’s keep it in mind as we study the book, and perhaps return at the end to consider its meaning. The title too—Normal People—is it meant ironically or more literally? We’ll see, as the orange demon used to say.
Writing about a different book in The New York Review of Books, Anahid Nersessian makes an interesting comment, “…the romances of Sally Rooney seem aimed at readers who, like her characters, have sex with the austere diligence of a high school valedictorian. What sets Rooney apart is that she makes what ought to be the most ordinary aspects of intimacy seem aspirational, as if consent and mutual gratification—however defined—were the summit and not the ground of erotic possibility.”
At first, this seems rather negative, painting Ms. Rooney’s work as romance, an implicitly lessor genre, and then describing her characters as austere and diligent in sexual matters, suggesting they’re a joyless lot. Valedictorians might object! However, the full quote actually offers praise, saying that Ms. Rooney is set apart from other writers in that she makes ordinary aspects of intimacy seem aspirational. Consent and mutual gratification are the summit of erotic possibility.
Well, yes, Connell and Marianne have sex a lot.
And they are not particularly wracked by guilt about it.
Some critics have praised Normal People for being a realistic depiction of contemporary men and women in their teens and twenties, particularly regarding their sexuality. Prraps so, best beloved.
Right from the beginning, there is a sexual tension between Marianne and Connell; they are attracted to each other, despite class differences and the issue of Marianne being a sort of pariah at the private school they both attend. This is not a traditional heterosexual tale of the man pursuing the woman who must finally offer consent to do the deed. Indeed, Marianne seems to be good-naturedly reveling in the power of her sexual attractiveness, in the way Connell’s face turns red around her. Connell is the one who seems somewhat embarrassed by his lust. And, I’d say, Ms. Rooney, a woman, writes empathetically about Connell, a male character.
There are some interesting structural issues in the book having to do with the narrator and the use of time, and rest assured we will be getting into those.
At this point, let’s say that the connection between Connell and Marianne is that Connell’s mother Lorraine, cleans house for Marianne’s mother, and that the two young folk attend high school together.
In the first chapter, there’s an interesting passage where Marianne and Connell are talking about school. Marianne seems flirtatious and confidant. Connell “dreads being left alone with her like this, but he also finds himself fantasizing about things he could say to impress her.” His dread is due to his concern over being identified with social pariah Marianne by his very caste-conscious schoolmates.
In this scene, he points out in the context of talking about tests that Marianne isn’t at the top of the class in English, and she responds, “Maybe you should give me grinds, Connell.”
Connell finds this interesting and anxiety provoking. “Giving grinds” is ambiguous; in British/Irish slang, it can mean tutoring, taking extra lessons outside of school hours, and it may also refer to sexual intercourse.
Then Marianne (that scamp) introduces a mise en abyme, a story within the story, a part that is emblematic of the whole. One of the teachers, Miss Neary, is apparently lusting after Connell and this embarrasses him—the same structure of Connell being embarrassed over Marianne’s advances.
Marianne tells Connell she likes him and this leads to the two of them arranging for Marianne to come to Connell’s house when his mother is gone so that they can have sex. And this is presented in a refreshingly straightforward manner.
Marianne escapes her loathsome brother Alan (more on him later) and sends Connell a text—on my way, and he replies, cool, see you soon.
“Kay. Let’s talk about sex a minute (or two). I’m going to say that in Normal People, Marianne and Connell present a generally positive view of sex, although we need to talk about Marianne more in this regard (her choice of partners and certain…behaviors, in particular.) In fairly modern parlance, they are both sex positive people, meaning that they consider sex a beneficial and healthy part of being human. This would be in contrast to sex negative people who deem any sexual behavior outside of procreation to be evil or forbidden. Sex negativity restricts the establishment of an inclusive world in which everyone can express their sexual and gender orientations without fear or judgement. It may make people feel depressed and guilty about not thinking a certain way about sexual matters.
Connell and Marianne frequently have sex as part of their caring relationship—and not to procreate, Connell uses a condom. Normal People shows sex as essentially joyous and meaningful, an attitude that gives yours truly hope for the future, as well as validating Ms. Nersessian’s comments.
Till next time.