Photo By: Noah Nickel via Amazon
The 2018 novel Normal People by Sally Rooney has been getting a lot of buzz on TikTok’s book-focused subculture “BookTok.” As anyone who frequents social media can tell you, just because something is viral doesn’t mean that it is good. Perhaps examining Normal People’s strengths will reveal what made it so popular, so that’s exactly what I’ll do.
The novel follows characters Marianne and Connell from their final year of high school to their final year of university. It is a detailed depiction of a complicated relationship between two complicated people. The story is certainly contemporary and relatable to current university students.
The plot is not central to the novel. It focuses primarily on the characters and their relationship, which is shared intimately with the reader. Rooney weaves Marianne and Connell’s lives together, writing only the scenes that are the most important and skipping forward in time to the next crucial moment. The relationship is interesting enough to keep the reader going, wondering how it is going to end.
The concept of normalcy is introduced in the title of Normal People and reoccurs throughout. It highlights the level of self-consciousness individuals have when comparing their lives to others and wondering if they are alone or if everyone else feels as isolated as they do, or if only one person could ever really understand them.
It is hard to predict what will gain popularity on TikTok, and perhaps what has gotten Normal People so much attention is the release of the TV adaptation in 2020. It may also be that the primary demographic of TikTok is teens and young adults. It makes sense that this influences what types of books are circulated on BookTok; primarily teen and young adult fiction. Normal People is appropriate for young adult readers, but is typically defined as literary fiction. Readers who haven’t been exposed to very much adult writing and literature would likely be impressed by a novel that incorporates complex themes and writing. This complexity can be found in young adult fiction, but it is somewhat rare.
Rooney takes her time allowing the themes to develop rather than making them incredibly clear to the reader right away. The novel asks questions about whether two people can truly know each other and how people in love change one another. Marianne and Connell are both deeply damaged people who feel tragic and star-crossed at times, but in the end, Rooney seems optimistic about love. In Normal People, love has the power to free you from loneliness.
Rooney is an author writing about writing; her protagonist Connell is also a writer. The way she writes about literature is interesting but hardly one of the central ideas of the novel. However, the hidden imaginary life of the writer as a representation of the internal self is an interesting idea that readers may find themselves coming back to after putting the book down.
The world is specific to Ireland and a great deal of the story takes place in Dublin, but it feels as though it could be any university town. The specificity of the writing adds a layer of realism that could resonate deeply with university-age readers who are facing the same struggles that Marianne and Connell are. For some readers it may make more sense to stop looking at the pages and experience real life.
The characters are specific and interesting; we see them go from being teenagers to adults and not only does growing up change them, but they also change each other. What marks a good book though is the sense that the author has imparted some secret about the universe unto the reader, Normal People waits until the very last page to do that.