36 pages 1 hour read

Sally Rooney

Normal People

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Normal People is a novel by Sally Rooney, published by Faber & Faber in 2018. Rooney is also the author of the novel Conversations With Friends, and the winner of the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. 

Normal People is set in the author’s native Ireland. The two main characters are Connell Waldron, a boy from a lower-middle-class background, and Marianne Sheridan, who comes from a wealthy family. As disparate as their socioeconomic statuses are, Connell and Marianne have some less obvious commonalities. Both come from unconventional, single-parent families: Connell, raised entirely by his mother, Lorraine, has never known his father; Marianne’s father died when she was young, and she lives with her icy mother Denise and her bullying older brother, Alan. Connell’s and Marianne’s backgrounds make them feel separate from their peers, as do their sensitive, bookish natures. 

Plot Summary

In their hometown of Carricklea in western Ireland, Marianne and Connell first encounter one another at Marianne’s house. Lorraine works for Denise as a housecleaner, and Connell stops by to drive Lorraine home after work. While waiting for Lorraine to finish, Connell and Marianne make conversation. She asks him about Paula Neary, an economics teacher at the high school who seems to be paying Connell an unusual amount of flirtatious attention. Connell admits that the flirtation makes him uncomfortable, an admission that he would never make to his more conventional circle of friends. 

Marianne and Connell exchange books and soon become lovers, although they do not to acknowledge one another publicly. As their intimacy deepens, Connell becomes aware of Marianne's uncertainty and self-loathing, a legacy from her dysfunctional family. After she is assaulted one night by a peripheral member of their social group, she confides to Connell that her father, while he was alive, used to hit both her and her mother. Now that their father is gone, Alan has taken on the domineering role, with Denise’s tacit encouragement. 

Connell feels frightened by both the depth of his feelings and the severity of Marianne’s problems. He makes an impulsive decision to take Rachel Moran to the Debs Ball at the end of the school year. Marianne reacts badly: She quits going to school the following day and refuses to respond to his texts and phone calls. When they next see one another at Trinity College, where Connell has decided to go because of Marianne’s early encouragement, their social situations are reversed: Marianne is in her element in Dublin; Connell, bemused by Trinity's social codes, feels both smarter and less sophisticated than the entitled private school graduates who surround him.  

Despite their difficult history and new social barriers, Marianne and Connell resume their friendship and soon become lovers again. Marianne must face the skepticism and condescension of her more snobbish Dublin friends, who consider Connell a hick, and Connell is acutely aware of his lack of financial stability relative to Marianne’s. When he realizes that he will be unable to afford to stay in Dublin for the summer, he balks at asking Marianne if he can stay with her. Instead, he announces that he is going home to Carricklea for the summer. Marianne interprets this as an announcement that he would like to break up with her and reacts with sudden coldness and pride. 

Their friendship nevertheless continues, even while both become involved with different people. Connell dates a medical student named Helen. Marianne becomes involved in two destructive, abusive relationships, first with Jamie—a wealthy, boorish boy in her Trinity social group—and then with a Swedish photographer named Lukas. While apart from one another, both Marianne and Connell endure their share of depression and isolation. Connell is devastated by the suicide of Rob, a boy in his high school social group. He feels equally cut off from his hometown and the wider world of Trinity and Dublin.  

Newly single, Connell and Marianne resume their sexual intimacy while she visits him in Carricklea. When Marianne requests that Connell hit her in the middle of sex, Connell cannot do it; ashamed, Marianne flees from his house. Once home, she is goaded into a fight with Alan, who accidentally breaks her nose. Marianne calls Connell, who drives her back to his house after first warning Alan to stay away from her. They move in together in Dublin, and Marianne has a new sense of herself as normal and invisible. Connell is accepted by an MFA program in New York, and Marianne—newly secure in their partnership—encourages him to go.

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