Every generation gets the designation it supposedly deserves. The already well-worn logline on millennials is that they’re all short-attention-span egoists trapped in some perpetual internet ether; an army of Snapchatting, self-regarding snowflakes somehow convinced of their own innate specialness.
The two protagonists in Sally Rooney‘s Normal People are young and hopeful and singularly smart, though all they want, really, is to blend in and belong: Connell, handsome, working-class, and seemingly at ease in every social situation, is actually a mess of insecurities and self-doubt; wealthy outcast Marianne wears her social-pariah status like a badge—the better to mask the brutal truth that Connell is happy to be in her bed but would hate for anyone to know it. When the two leave the safety and strictures of their small Irish town for college in Dublin, their roles are suddenly reversed: Connell finds himself shabby and invisible among the children of privilege, while Marianne blossoms; what they can’t seem to do is quit each other. (The internet, incidentally, hardly figures in at all.)
Few contemporary novelists have achieved the kind of rock-star status that Rooney has found with her 2017 debut, Conversations With Friends, and now Normal. Her writing is deceptively simple: cool, declarative, almost clinical. But it’s hypnotic too, shot through with a quiet impact and subdermal intimacy that feels both universal and thrillingly new. A-