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- Sally Rooney, the 28-year-old author of “Normal People” and “Conversations With Friends” has been hailed as “the first great millennial author” by The New York Times.
- “Normal People” was released in April and recently optioned into a Hulu series.
- After reading both books, I agree with the buzz surrounding Rooney.
- Rooney expertly explores the complexities of millennial romance and young adulthood in a subtle, genuine way.
- WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Is 28-year-old Irish author Sally Rooney the J.D. Salinger of millennials?
Her critically acclaimed debut, “Conversations With Friends,” launched in 2017 with the tagline “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” – and the praise and accolades Rooney has received since echo as much.
Her latest, “Normal People,” hit American bookstores in April and Rooney was lauded as “the first great millennial author” by The New York Times. It quickly became a book-club staple and was recently optioned into a Hulu series.
“Normal People” has been long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize, and “Conversations with Friends” already bears the honor of Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Kathryn Lyndsay of Refinery29 called carrying a Rooney book “a new Instagram status symbol.”
Even celebrities are fans – Lena Dunham reportedly introduced Emily Ratajkowski to Rooney’s work, Lyndsay wrote. And Sarah Jessica Parker raved on Instagram, “This book. This book. I read it in one day. I hear I’m not alone.”
Twitter fanfare left me intrigued by “Normal People” before it launched. I ended up devouring it in just a few days, and then promptly picked up “Conversations with Friends,” and after reading both, I was quick to ride the bandwagon.
‘Normal People’ isn’t your average love story
“Normal People” follows the on-again, off-again relationship of Marianne and Connell, which they avoid ever defining. In high school, private and wealthy Marianne is not liked by her peers; the popular Connell, whose mother cleans the mansion Marianne lives in, comes from a working-class background and is the proverbial golden boy.
The two forge a connection and secretly begin hooking up, but when Connell, fearing the judgment of his peers, takes the popular girl to the school dance instead of Marianne, their relationship ends.
At Trinity College Dublin, their paths cross again in a reversal of roles. Marianne has many friends who admire her charm and intellect, while Connell is a lonely outsider. And so their lives continue to intermittently intertwine, as both friends and lovers.
In straightforward, deadpan prose that I first found jarring but later found moving, Rooney spins an epic story of what modern love looks like in a millennial culture where people are afraid of being vulnerable and feelings are unspokenly prohibited.
Rooney nails the deafening complexities of a millennial romance
Rooney’s genius lies not in her plot but in her characters. Flipping between Marianne and Connell’s point of views, Rooney shrewdly depicts the complexities of a dysfunctional relationship, stripping away layers of their thoughts to reveal the dynamics of ever-shifting power struggles and how emotional insecurities can sneak their way into a relationship.
Marianne is from a physically and verbally abusive family, which leads her into a destructive territory with sadistic men, while Connell deals with shame and depression.
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Rooney’s slivers of insight into how Marianne and Connell wrestle with their emotions and question their identity in the process made it one of the most realistic portrayals of young love I’ve read. Their relationship is rife with mistakes, misunderstandings, and missed chances that could be simplified if only they communicated and didn’t subconsciously suppress their feelings, as millennials are wont to do.
The relationship is messy and carries weighted moments made all the more intense by the heady, raw notions of a young 20-something – without the stereotypical angst. But it’s simultaneously sweet, genuine, and heartfelt: While Marianne and Connell have a hard time admitting it, their chemistry is apparent to the reader, and it’s their magnetism the book revolves around.
Rooney, wrote Laura Miller for Slate, “believes in true love, even if her lovers lack the vocabulary or even the conceptual framework to recognize this is what they have together.”
Socioeconomic and mental constructs shape relationships and young adulthood
From mental-health struggles to class divides and wealth disparities, Marianne and Connell’s romance is painted into an emotional, social, and economic background that fuels and infiltrates their interactions.
It’s a testament to Rooney’s discerning knack for exploring the workings of the millennial mind in a modern coming-of-age story, an acuity that also carried “Conversations With Friends,” which I liked but didn’t love. That book follows the story of ex-lovers and best friends, Frances and Bobbi, who befriend an enigmatic couple. Frances ends up having an affair with the husband, which puts a strain on her relationship with Bobbi.
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Both novels bear the same hallmarks: college parties, dinner parties, political debates, and communication by email, showing how today’s 20-somethings attending an elite college walk the finicky border between youth and adulthood. Internal and external discourse molds the deep connections of the protagonists.
Rooney’s shrewd observations of the behaviors of a younger generation end on an ambiguous note in both novels. While frustrating to some, I felt the endings were authentic – life never really gets wrapped up in a bow.
Read more: The 29 best books we read in 2018
Rooney asks the questions that plague millennials
As Marianne and Connell confront their expectations and desires, “Normal People” raises questions about our uncertainty and place in the world. Their struggles lie in the complicated search for the meaning of life and love, but Rooney subtly examines these in a non-clichéd way: “If people appeared to behave pointlessly in grief, it was only because human life was pointless, and this was the truth that grief revealed,” Marianne thinks amid forgiveness.
Rooney scrutinizes the innate human desire to be loved and accepted, and how fear can lead us to self-sabotage the very thing we want. She asks: Why do we give second chances? Why don’t we give up? What does love look like? And what does it mean to be normal?
As clichéd as it is, Rooney’s work strikes me as relatable: Anyone who has ever tried to define love or purpose will find their food for thought here.
Only time will tell if Rooney is the great novelist of the millennial generation, but whether or not her books end up on the required-reading list for high schoolers 50 years from now, “Normal People” will remain a classic on my bookshelf.