Normal People? : reflections on Rooney

Sally Rooney’s novels are loved by some, loathed by others; after the recent Conversations with Friends television adaptation of Rooney’s book, Daisy Game contemplates the term ‘millennial’ – and the likeability of unlikeable characters.

First there was a girl (Marianne); then then there was a boy (Connell); then there was novel concerning said girl and boy; then there was a TV programme – and then, there was a pandemic.

And so it was that on a cold, dreary week in Lockdown 1.0, the first episode of Normal People (based on Sally Rooney’s novel) aired – and the Sally Rooney Cult was born. YouTube videos, blog posts, and Spotify playlists – all in celebration of Sally and her coming-of-age bestseller-turned-TV-phenomenon ­– sprung up in the show’s wake; Tumblr threads unwound, Twitter trails grew. There were even Instagram accounts set up with the express intention of paying homage to 1) the thin metal chain worn by the rather dashing Connell / Paul Mescal (@connellschain, for the rightfully curious) and 2) Marianne / Daisy Edgar-Jones’ perfect hairstyle, ‘@mariannesbangs’.

But Rooney wasn’t a total crowd-pleaser. Many attributed Normal People’s success to ‘Lockdown Loneliness’: deprived of all flirtation/touch, it’s little wonder that we all fawned over Rooney’s teenage-to-twenties romance; the novelist, the sceptics concluded, had simply received a cosmic shove onto the 2020 cultural scene.

Rooney doesn’t create monsters; she simply peels back that tight, polite façade that we’re all so fond of wearing

Even before her runaway TV success, Rooney proved divisive. Shortly after her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), was published, the critical world honoured (/shackled: discuss) Rooney with ‘the first great millennial novelist’ title. For said millennials, this was a pretty thrilling concept: “Our very own novelist!”, cried the babes of ’81–’96: “Somebody who fills the pages of her books with text messages, dating apps and complicated sex!” For others – let’s call them the Rooney Naysayers – the ‘M’ word alone was enough to inspire a quick jog for the hills. And as for the stories themselves – let’s not even go there.

One of The Naysayers’ main bugbears has to do with the likeability of Rooney’s characters – or, as the RN’s suggest, the lack thereof. They’re not wrong: Rooney’s young people do tend to be pretty spiky and self-absorbed; petulant and neurotic. They think, and think again, and then overthink – and then overthink some more. They do the wrong thing more often that the right, and are just as likely to treat one another poorly as they are to treat one another well; they sleep with married men, think judgemental thoughts, and allow pride to cloud judgement.

So, no – Rooney doesn’t go in for The Wholly Good Girl/Guy; but I think there’s something rather lovely about her celebration of youth’s less pretty parts. Rooney doesn’t create monsters; she simply peels back that tight, polite, façade that we’re all so fond of wearing – even when we’re alone, looking in the bathroom mirror. Her characters (and by extension, her readers) are laid bare, bright and true.

Above: Sasha Lane as Bobbi (left) and Alison Oliver as Frances (right) in Conversations With Friends (2022) Image credit: BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe

So – that’s on (dis)likeability. The second argument thrown by The Naysayers goes something along the lines of “But nothing ever happens? Rooney would literally write an entire chapter about buying a loaf of bread in Sainsburys?” What do we care, the argument continues, that Marianne decided to pour herself a glass of orange juice, or that, when Connell takes a sip of his own drink,“the beer is cold but the glass is room temperature”. Isn’t it all rather banal? All rather slow? Well, yes – and no: in my books (pun intended) that’s a fairly blinkered take on things. Because for every glass of orange juice, Rooney gives us a brilliant, startlingly truthful glimpse into her characters’ interior lives: we learn about Connell’s depression (Normal People), Frances’ endometriosis (Conversations with Friends), and Alice’s anxiety (Beautiful World, Where are You). We are let in on the character’s most intimate thoughts one moment, only to be booted firmly back out into the observational-periphery the next. Which, to me, is Rooney’s rather brilliant way of mimicking the fluctuations through which our relationships move ‘IRL’ (i.e., ‘in real life’). At times we are so close to those that we love, we feel that we’re almost inside them: we breathe – and think – as one. But at others, we are forced to watch from afar: left to hazard a guess at that person’s feelings through their silence – or their fridge raid.

Novels are magic: they allow you escape the world you know, and to visit those that you don’t. But my favourite books don’t take me so far from home. They validate my own experience of things: make me feel like that thought I had, or that thing I did, wasn’t so untoward after all. They don’t allow me respite from reality, but instead root me more firmly and comfortably within it – however messy that reality might be.

Sally Rooney’s novels are available in all good bookstores.