Marianne is a high school misfit, but that’s okay–she couldn’t care less about what people think.

Connel is one of the popular kids, and that’s fortunate because he does care about what everyone thinks. But being popular comes at a price; Connel has less liberty to act as he pleases—to see whom he chooses—than a social outcast like Marianne.

Frequently thrown together when he picks his mom up from Marianne’s mansion, (where his mom works as a cleaner), these two awkward teenagers find that they connect on a deeper level, both intellectually and emotionally.

Onward, we follow their on-and-off relationship, with all its ups and downs, over the course of the next seven years. But, whether they sleep together or not, they are always together—the two of them against this often dark and distorted world. Even when they’re involved with other people, their bond surpasses those they are able to form with others.

Through a rollercoaster of their emotional and sexual relationship, the author discusses the very themes that have earned her the ‘Voice of the Millennial generation’ label: mental illness, social belonging, the worth of money, and finding meaning in life.

As a reader:

At the very beginning, you get the distinct feeling you’re not reading just any other book. Though Marianne can technically be stereotyped as the average high school misfit, and Connel as the usual popular kid, believe me, there is nothing stereotypical about these characters.

The depth of their personalities surfaces quickly and powerfully, leaving a very anxious feeling in the reader; a feeling that something that should be clean and innocent is somehow flawed and corrupted.

The author portrays their personal traits so skillfully, that after reading 273 pages, you feel more like you’ve read a trilogy. But though you feel you know them and understand their underlying motives and traumas that drive them, you still feel that there’s something—a part of their personalities—that the author left undisclosed.

Even at the very end of the novel, you’re not quite sure what it is, in their very essence, that drives them; Marianne’s need for sexual and emotional submissiveness and Connel’s sense of utter social inadequacy.

Then again, there’s a distinctive, even identifying part of every person’s personality that makes each of us act uniquely even in the most common situations. That part of our psyche—our very core— can never be fully explained, can it?

True to its title, Normal People is a story about normal people, and still, there is nothing normal about them. And then again, is there anything normal about any of us? Aren’t we all quirky/ different/ strange in one way or another?

The depth of Connel and Marianne’s emotional connection tugs at your gut as you read the novel. It is nurturing and destructive, nauseating and beautiful, timeless and timely.

As a writer:

I could write a Ph.D. thesis on this book and still not cover all the different aspects a writer can take away from it.

Though the plot starts as your average YA novel with romantic elements, the quality of prose and dialogue decidedly labels it as literary fiction. Still, unlike many other lit-fic books, the writing is as accessible as in genre fiction, and you’ll only re-read sentences because you’ll want to memorize them, not because you couldn’t understand them.

Here are some of the lessons a writer can learn by reading this book:

Characterization/ Character arcs / Character agency

I’ve already written about the depth of characterization in ‘As a reader‘ section, so I’ll avoid repetitiveness.

The novel offers little plot other than their usual (normal) lives, so almost the entire appeal of the novel relies on how successful the author is in fleshing these characters out, both individually and in the context of their interaction. The praise and the (well-deserved) hype around this book, proves that Rooney pulled it off.

Dialogue

Sally Rooney’s dialogues are impeccable. Even when they are seemingly about unimportant things, not related to plot, they still tend to perfectly serve the narrative.

On the technical side, she doesn’t even use quotation marks, but, somehow it is never a problem. You are absolutely certain what’s dialogue and what isn’t, and you can tell who’s speaking at all times; that’s how perfectly she developed the voices of her characters.

Description of sensations / thoughts/ feelings

In my article Writing Fiction as a Way of Practicing Mindfulness, I’ve written about how the thing I love most as a reader, (and strive for as a writer) is to be able to pinpoint an emotion or a physical sensation in a way that feels authentic, that readers would recognize and say—’‘Yes, this is exactly how it feels. I know what she’s talking about.”

Rooney does this with almost every other sentence. It is insane just how adeptly she’s able to put to words notions that are most pertaining to a certain situation.

Keeping a reader rooted in the moment

While I can’t say that Rooney hasn’t, on more than one occasion, broke the ‘show vs. tell’ rule (which mostly relates to backstories and some of the explaining of the emotional state of the characters) she is skillful in keeping the reader fully immersed in the current setting. Whether the characters are licking a chocolate spread, biting on a piece of a croissant or on their nails, you always have a very detailed picture of how they occupy the space they’re in. And never in a way that derails from the narrative.

Breaking the rules of creative writing

Rooney breaks more than one rule of the writing craft. But she does it so well, you can’t find anything faulty in her prose. She tells vs. shows a lot, a large part of the narrative is written through backstory, etc…Which goes to show, rules can be broken…once you’re a good enough writer to know how to break them.

I recommend reading this book if you’re a writer struggling with:

  • believable dialogue
  • characterization/ character arcs
  • writing beautiful prose