The Costa Book Awards (in the novel and first novel categories) have always impressed me. I’ve read and enjoyed many of the winners from past years. This year I decided to read all four nominees for the novel award. To the first 3 I read, I awarded at least 4 stars: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2018/12/review-of-silence-of-girls-by-pat-barker.html) and From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2019/01/review-of-from-low-and-quiet-sea-by.html) and The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2019/01/review-of-italian-teacher-by-tom-rachman.html). I just finished Normal People which is the last one on the shortlist; unfortunately, I can’t give it an equally high rating. Of course, it is the book that won the award as the best novel!
The novel tells the relationship story of Marianne and Connell between January 2011 and February 2015. They are young people who begin a clandestine romance in their last year of high school. They then attend Trinity College in Dublin where they drift in and out of each other’s lives; they have romantic/sexual relationships with others but always return to being lovers.
Marianne, who comes from a wealthy family, is very intelligent but has poor self-esteem and is a social outcast in high school. Connell, who is raised by a working class single mother, is also very intelligent; though he is shy, he is very popular because he excels at sports. In university, the tables are turned. Connell finds life lonely because he has “no reputation to recommend him to anyone.” It is Marianne who fits in and her relationship with Connell opens doors for him: “To be known as her boyfriend plants him firmly in the social world, establishes him as an acceptable person, someone with a particular status, someone whose conversational silences are thoughtful rather than socially awkward.”
There is not much to the plot. The two are romantically involved and then some misunderstanding results in their breaking up and finding alternate partners. Then they reconnect until another miscommunication causes a rift. For example, Connell moves back to his hometown for a summer because he doesn’t have the money to pay for rent and he’s too proud to ask Marianne if he can live with her. Marianne, who has access to money, doesn’t think to ask him to move in because in her financially secure world people do what they want. As a consequence, they end up apart, each thinking the other wants a break. Sometimes it seems they don’t communicate at all. For instance, it is not until two-thirds of the way through the novel, after they’ve known each other for 4 years and even though Connell’s mother once worked for Marianne’s mother, that Marianne finally talks to Connell about the real nature of her relationship with her mother and brother? For two people who are supposed to be so connected, they are often disconnected. They certainly have difficulty communicating clearly and understanding each other! I was reminded of a soap opera where it is obvious two characters are meant to be together but they have an on-off relationship because of constant misunderstandings.
Characterization is problematic. Connell and Marianne are not especially likeable characters. Connell strikes me as weak because of “how savagely he had humiliated [Marianne]” by a choice he makes at the end of high school and has an “inability to apologise or even admit he had done it.” His later criticism of other men who behave boorishly suggests a lack of self-knowledge. Marianne is too submissive; though we learn there is a reason for her pliant behaviour, one would expect her to stand up more for herself. The physical and psychological abuse she keeps accepting from her brother Alan makes no sense.
Other characters are unrealistic. Connell’s and Marianne’s mothers are foils; one is the “good mother”: loving, kind to everyone, and wise. The other is the “bad mother”: emotionally distant and actively encouraging of Adam’s abuse of his sister. One has no negative qualities; the other has no positive ones. The young men all seem to be sexually exploitative; the young women are needy, always valuing themselves only in relation to men and being willing to do anything to be loved. The various young people are not differentiated and so are interchangeable and unmemorable.
I’m sure some readers will like the novel’s attention to detail; the book is like a microscope being used to magnify the thoughts and feelings of two people and to dissect their relationship. Unfortunately, there is a lot of extraneous detail. For example, there is a lot of description of preparing tea: “She started to fill the kettle, while he leaned against the countertop” and “She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch” and “The kettle started to warm up and she took a clean mug down from the press” and “She takes two teabags from the box and tamps them down into the cups while the kettle is boiling” and “She fills the kettle and takes cups down from the press” and “She gets up to fill the kettle. He watches her idly while she tamps her teabag down into her favorite cup” and “The kettle clicks its switch and she lifts it out of the cradle. She fills one of the cups and then the other.” And do we really need a lesson on how a corkscrew works: “Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. . . . Connell unpeels the foil from the top of the bottle . . . He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards . . . He folds down the arms of the corkscrew and lifts the cork from the neck of the bottle”?!
The theme of the novel seems to be that “people can really change one another.” In case the reader misses it, the theme is carefully detailed at the end: “He would be somewhere else entirely, living a different kind of life. He would be different with women even, and his aspirations for love would be different. And Marianne herself, she would be another person completely. Would she ever have been happy? And what kind of happiness might it have been? All those years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions. . . . They’ve done a lot of good for each other.” Yet Marianne remains submissive and Connell still seems weak!
I’m not the appropriate audience for this book since I have little interest in the sex lives of Millennials. To me, the novel seems little more than a romance trying to be literary.