On Normal People and Modern Relationships

Normal People
By Sally Rooney
304 pp. Hogarth. $17.

What constitutes a modern relationship these days? This phrase has been thrown around with much abandon in reference to “Normal People,” which makes me think that, if Connell and Marianne represent what a “modern relationship” is like in this day and age, then I’m not sure I’ve ever had one.

I bought this back in May of 2019 and I’ve been meaning to read it for even longer. Rooney has a new book out and perhaps it was this, combined with the relentless promotion of the young Irish novelist, that finally led me to pick “Normal People” up.

“Normal People,” of course, don’t actually exist, but that doesn’t stop us all from fretting, at some point in our lives, that we aren’t normal. Connell and Marianne, the book’s on-again, off-again lovers, certainly make a number of references to “normal” people — that mythical species that lives well and has it all figured out.

One thing that struck me as perhaps not so “normal” about Connell and Marianne’s relationship is that they email each other … a lot. That Rooney, a Millennial novelist praised for her insight into Millennials and modern relationships, should feature a Millennial couple who write to one other — and not just a couple of lines but actually write — struck me as a beautiful fantasy.

I had a pen pal when I was younger, two of them actually, but who has whatever the internet-age equivalent of a pen pal (an email pal?) is today? I have maybe three people I routinely email today but, for most of us, modern relationships seem to be carried out largely via the sharing of social media posts.

“Ah, Cameron shared a photo! Looks like he’s well!” and “Oh, there’s Katherine with her cat! Let’s like that one!”

Then you’ve got those you bat a paragraph back and forth with on a bi-weekly basis or so. Finally, if you’re lucky, there are one or two others you correspond with via big blocks of text, whose words propel your own. There aren’t many of them left, though, certainly among the Millennial crowd.

Unless you’re in Ireland! Because here, Rooney’s characters type out their feelings in giant electronic missives to one another, hitting “Send” only to sit back and repeat the act tomorrow. Ah, fiction you are glorious!

I went into this expecting something like David Nicholls’ “One Day” and this is very much that in shape — with similarly time-obsessed chapter headings like “Three Months Later” — but thematically there is a vast chasm between Dexter and Emma’s relationship in “One Day” and Connell and Marianne’s here. The former’s almost seems like a fairy tale which, if you remember how “One Day” ended, may cause some alarm.

Yes, “Normal People” is often quite dark, far more so than expected, but the characters and their relationship are very convincing. You do feel for them, both of them, which isn’t easy when they’re doing the things they’re doing here. But for all that pain, “Normal People” ends exactly how you want it to — in a way that feels true to the characters and the journey they’ve taken to get here.

Nothing in life and love ever goes quite to plan. There are surprises to be had along the way, both good and bad, heaps of both heartbreak and merriment.

“Normal People” is heavy on the heartbreak, but leaves the merriment largely confined to the white space that comes after the final line. It’s ours to imagine, to do with what we will. Each of us in our own, unique way.

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