Normal People Book Summary - Normal People Book explained in key points

Normal People summary

Sally Rooney

A Novel

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What is Normal People about?

Normal People (2018) tells the story of Marianne and Connell, two people who grow close during the final days of secondary school. As they move on to college and careers, the two struggle to make sense of their relationship and their feelings for one another.

About the Author

Sally Rooney is an Irish author who graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 2013 with an MA in American literature. She is the rare author who has experienced both critical and commercial success. Her other books include Conversations with Friends and Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Table of Contents
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    Divides and perspectives

    It’s complicated. For starters, Connell’s mother works as a house cleaner for Marianne’s family. Marianne lives in a gigantic white mansion with a very long driveway. In the working-class town of Carricklea, Ireland, everyone knows this house.

    Connell and Marianne are the same age, and they go to the same school. All of Connell’s friends know who Marianne is, and they all think she’s someone to avoid. Unlike Connell, who manages to be popular and get good grades, Marianne gets good grades but has zero friends. When not in class, she sits alone reading books. There are embarrassing rumors and stories that follow her around – people say she’s mentally ill and never shaves her legs. To put it simply, Connell is well aware that Marianne is considered an “object of disgust.”

    Nevertheless, these two are far from strangers. After school, Connell is often at Marianne’s house, waiting for his mom to finish work. This is the scenario in January 2011, when Connell finds himself standing awkwardly in the kitchen. The two have just gotten back the results of their mock exams. In French, Marianne got an A1. In German, Connell got an A1.

    It’s weird. Despite Connell’s discomfort at being there, he finds himself coming up with ways to impress her. Marianne is smart, confident, and especially good at making sly, teasing remarks that make Connell’s ears turn red. It strikes Connell that all of this exists within a bubble. Marianne has never spoken to anyone about these encounters and conversations. So, as a result, Connell says things to her that he wouldn’t say to anyone else. He’s open and unguarded around her. And yet, in a way, this just adds to his discomfort. He shouldn’t be attracted to her … and yet he is. It doesn’t make sense.

    Marianne can also tell that something is happening. She likes Connell. She just assumed he hated her like everyone else. But that day after the mock results, Connell tells her that he didn’t hate her. This particularly stands out to Marianne because even her family hates her. Her dad died when she was 13, and now her brother takes every opportunity to diminish and abuse her, while her mother remains uncaring.

    In the weeks that follow, Marianne daydreams about Connell – fantasizes about him, in fact – and he starts showing up at her house more often. They’re both voracious readers. And since Connell’s best friends aren’t interested in books, he enjoys hearing Marianne’s opinions on things. They grow closer, their conversations more personal, until, finally, in the study of Marianne’s house, surrounded by books, Connell kisses her.

    It’s Marianne’s first kiss. They laugh. Then Connell reminds her, “Don’t tell anyone at school about this, okay?” She reminds him that she doesn’t talk to anyone at school anyway. At first, it’s exciting – walking around with this secret between them. But it only makes things more complicated.

    Soon they’re having sex at Connell’s house. Since Connell’s friends knew all his previous girlfriends, the sordid details of his sex life were always the subject of unwanted discussion and gossip. It’s nice that sex with Marianne is just between them. In fact, it makes sex pleasurable for him for the first time. Finally, he starts to understand what all the fuss is about.

    Naturally, the feelings between them grow more intense. Connell starts writing about her – filling his notebook with pages of free-flowing thoughts about Marianne, trying to better understand her. Then he says it: he loves her. It moves Marianne deeply. She’s spent so long thinking that she isn’t a lovable person. For her, this moment – hearing Connell say those words – marks the true beginning of her life. 

    Marianne is enriching Connell’s life, too. She encourages his writing and his literary interests. She convinces him to apply as an English major to the prestigious Trinity College Dublin, which she also plans on attending.

    And yet, Connell is having a difficult time reconciling these feelings. It’s becoming terrifying. His friends still bully Marianne all the time. He still feels this need to keep their relationship a secret. Is it possible to move between two worlds – one where he could still be popular in school, and the other where he could be respected by Marianne?

    This question is all-consuming in the days before the big graduation dance known as “the Debs.” Confused and panicky, Connell ends up asking another girl to go with him – a popular girl. It is, of course, heartbreaking for Marianne. Even Connell’s mom, who likes Marianne, is shocked and disappointed by her son’s decision. Ironically enough, Connell’s friend Eric eventually tells him that everyone knew he’d been seeing Marianne. No one really cared. The secrecy, the hurt – it was all for nothing. And now, Marianne wants nothing to do with him.


    1. Let’s take a moment here to unpack what’s happened so far, because this first section establishes most of the themes that will continue throughout.

    With Marianne and Connell, we’re presented with two people who have a lot in common – and a few big things keeping them apart (at least from the kind of relationship we’d like them to have).

    Two of the biggest divides are class and Connell’s fear of what others will think. Class is maybe the more obvious one. Connell’s mom working as a house cleaner for Marianne’s mom establishes this divide very clearly. But it doesn’t play out as you might expect. In their small town, Connell is the popular one, while Marianne is considered the weird outsider.

    The bigger divide is the internal one. This is a story that is very much driven by the changes that go on inside Marianne and Connell’s minds. More so than external pressures, it’s their individual fears and perceptions (and misperceptions) that influence their choices. For Connell, it’s the fear of how others will perceive him if they know he’s seeing Marianne. He knows that people at school see him as a good person, but now he’s thinking, Maybe they’re wrong?

    Marianne, on the other hand, doesn’t care about what other people think. This is one of the things that Connell finds attractive about her. But then, she also has a very poor opinion of herself. Unlike Connell, her upbringing has left her feeling broken and unlovable. But she respects Connell and cares about what he thinks. So when he says he loves her, it changes everything. She knows that everyone thinks she’s unlovable, but now she is thinking, Maybe they’re wrong?

    These issues will continue to deepen and evolve – and express themselves in different ways – as Marianne and Connell move to Dublin and attend the same university.

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    Who should read Normal People

    • Anyone interested in complex relationships
    • Fans of romantic dramas
    • Readers curious about one of the most popular books of the 2010s

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