Sally Rooney needs more time
Thanks to technology. It allows me to listen, instead of reading, this seemingly simple book. Yet also because of technology, the ‘reading process’ cannot be equally painstaking as reading an actual book. In that way, I do not feel the right to judge this book – in fact, I am somewhat bewildered. Thus, I am just trying to express my appreciations together with my confusions.
Normal People is about a love story that is not uncommon in the European context. Two teenagers, more or less grew up together, became a couple, then broke up, found other partners and went through other fusses, and eventually got together again – before they parted again. During this process, something more happened to the protagonists, especially the female Marianne – love rescues her from her ‘abnormal’ family and her personal trauma, and transforms her to a ‘normal person’. That journey of love is warm and uplifting, and at the end of the book, I could not get rid of Reynaldo Hahn’s A Chloris playing in my mind. So yes, it is apparently a nice love story.
Moreover, Rooney has already mastered the control over her language. She does not need tediously long preparations for any drama, instead she sees the dramatic sparks clearly, and her language can immediately ignite them. The outcome is the convincing description of the students’ fussy but true life. It precisely captures their mentality and lifestyle. At least from my perspective, this book reads almost exactly like many of my friends’ life and love story. I may not acknowledge that life, but I do appreciate Rooney’s accurate account.
However, I really cannot acknowledge the student’s fussy love and sex. It may not be necessarily related to my conservative attitude or my Chinese cultural background. I never quite understood their – sorry for my word choice – beasty relationship, and their impulses and lusts in that regard are never secured by any sense of rationality. Is that true love or what? I feel sorry, maybe for myself, for not being able to comprehend that. Anyhow, the matter is that love lacks a reason in this story. It was Connell’s sustaining love that ultimately salvages Marianne, but for such an important force, it came out of nowhere, almost right at the beginning of the story, and that love as a faithful dedication – not as the ‘love’ manifested in his relationship with other girls – genuinely seems lacking of any justification or contestation. Well, yes, I know that “情不知所起，一往而深”…. But come on, it is a fiction, back it up, can you please?
Without justifying the core force, the story sounds a little artificial. Rooney, as a female writer, is naturally capable of dissecting Marianne’s psychology, though that was facilitated by her – the author’s – narration. It is slightly distracting or dissuasive to hear the author’s analysis as an external justification. This got worse on Connell’s part. The author has no equal access to this male character as to the female, and reasonably she explained relatively little about Connell. But of course, that leaves Connell somewhat unexplained…. Connell the character sounds like a constant supplier of love without other functions, and when Marianne got out of the country – when he lost the consumer of his love, he fell into depression. When Connell hooked up with Helen, there was little about that motivation, either. Admittedly, I am simplifying things – even unfairly; nevertheless, Connell’s personality does look empty in comparison to Marianne’s. That is rather disappointing.
Another point worth mentioning is Sally Rooney’s ambition, which looks like something more than what has been conveyed by the book. At times Rooney clearly states that Connell and Marianne belong to distinct – almost antagonistic – social classes, but how does that fundamentally affect their relationship, I did not get the answer from the story. Also, Rooney seems to indicate that Marianne’s rich family is a fundamental source of her ‘abnormal’ identity, which is not further verified, either. How can rich people’s richness turn back against them and even harm them? It is greatly pitiful to see the author leaving this crucial source of Marianne’s trauma, this ‘abnormal’ starting point from which derives the ‘normal people’, unelaborated. I would say that the short story ‘Pelican Song’ by Mary-Beth Hughes (which has a Chinese version) does a much – yes, much – better job than Normal People in that regard. Rooney has the good intention, but as demonstrated by this book, she still needs her time and preparation for a better realisation.
Yes, even for such a talented young lady as Sally Rooney, the market needs more time to allow her to cultivate and do better. At the same time, her publishers, by overly popularising and promoting her, are exhausting her future for the sake of money. They should do better, too.