Normal People has enchanted the nation, intriguing avid readers before the BBC adaptation, and then capturing the interests of less regular readers after it. But what really makes the book so special?
Arguably, its power lies in its realism. Written in a simplistic style, it feels as if every word is important; every action that takes place gives us an insight into some emotion felt between Marianne and Connell. And one of the main themes that is presented in this way is the disparity in money available to Marianne and Connell.
Marianne, coming from a wealthy family does not have to worry about money. Winning the history scholarship at her university was not an achievement because of the financial gain that she will receive from it, but rather she was concerned with the reputation and status that it would give her. Marianne’s family own a summer house in France, showing the extent of their wealth, and her mother’s occupation is as a lawyer. All of these tell us that her family have an abundance of money, and we can logically deduce that they are a middle-class family.
In contrast, Connell’s mother works for Marianne’s family. As a cleaner, she earns her wage from Marianne’s mother, and they live in a very different social sphere. Connell has to constantly worry about money, and so when he also wins the scholarship, for him it opens up new opportunities to him: without this money he could not have gone interrailing. He lives in a world where his dreams are prohibited because of his social status. Marianne has to buy him food and tickets when they travel to places, and he even has to go to her flat drunk when he is in need of money.
The novel’s realism puts these two characters in very different social spheres: one where money is no object, and one where money dominates their everyday lives and decisions. But the book does not dance around this subject of money, and from the very beginning it raises questions that ask, can a relationship successfully work between two people from such different social backgrounds?
There is no easy answer given by Rooney. From the beginning right to the end of the novel, this question lies embedded and waiting to be answered. On the one hand, the heart-breaking miscommunication between the two characters suggests that it cannot ever work. The difference in money in their lives seems to lead to such mass miscommunication. The most obvious example of this is when Connell loses his summer job and cannot afford to stay at university to be with Marianne, hence he has to return home. Here, Marianne could have offered for him to stay at hers, and this is what Connell was hoping for. His pride prevented him from asking however, and because money was rarely talked about between the two Marianne does not see it as an opportunity to show off her financial security and ask him to stay at hers. This may be because she knows that Connell hates acknowledging that he is taking liberty of her wealth. Or, it may be because she has grown up not having to be concerned with money, and so cannot understand that Connell would not have enough money for a place of his own. Either way, it leads to months of heartache for both involved, and a loss of communication between the two. Their social worlds seem incompatible here, and not talking about their financial differences serves to be just as detrimental to their relationship as being preoccupied with them.
And yet, the novel does not dash every hope of a successful relationship. Despite the evident problems, the two seem to always get back together. Even when Marianne stops Connell from kissing her in France and then moves to Lund, they keep in touch through email. Nothing seems to be able to keep them apart for too long. Despite their relationship being problematic at best, they are always there for each other.
The ending of the novel really leaves it up to the reader to think about whether money will ruin their future together. With Connell having the opportunity to move away at the very end, their future is left uncertain. Marianne knows that things will change if he moves away, and yet also acknowledges that they have grown as people. To think optimistically, they have always supported each other throughout their relationship and so why would this change that? To think pessimistically, if they have changed as people then maybe they do not rely on each other anymore, and their social world are just too different.
The interpretation of the ending of the novel can allow money to either present problems which are too big for Marianne and Connell to be compatible, or it can be seen an obstacle that can be overcome. In my opinion, it is suggesting that it is down to individuals in relationships to work through social disparities, and to communicate with each other about how they feel. I think that it presents hope that social boundaries can be obliterated, that relationships can work between two people of any class. But I also think that it presents a warning: it is not an easy road to do so, but if two people love each other enough, then money or social difference cannot keep two people apart for very long.
Words by Sophie Wilson
Normal People by Sally Rooney can be purchased here.