This book is up for a couple of awards this year. And I remember from a year or so ago, her first novel got a lot of similar praise and great reviews. It still wasn’t necessarily high on my TBR, overall, but for some reason, when I was looking for a new book to start, my mood yelled out for this one. And I’m a heavy mood reader and have learned, after years, to just go with it, because it makes the reading experience so much better.
“People really can change one another.”
Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other at school, even though they often see each other after school when Connell picks up his mother from her job cleaning Marianne’s family’s house. Connell is popular and a star soccer player, while Marianne is a bit of a loner, considered weird. Despite their differences though, a connection grows between them and they begin a new, though secret, type of relationship. A year later, they reconnect while they are both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Over the following years, they each try new things, date different people, and struggle to come to terms with who they are and what they want out of life, while being almost magnetically drawn back together over and over again.
From that description, you can almost see why I wasn’t sure about this book. Honestly, it just seems like almost nothing happens. What is there to read about? And to be honest, that impression was fairly spot on. There is no big twist, surprise, bombshell or any other crazy plot device. Marianne and Connell are literally, as the title says, two normal people, making decisions and living their lives the best way they can figure out. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about either of them, and so much of what they experience feels familiar to the point of mundanity, honestly. I mean, it’s not like I personally identify with all of it, but I do with enough of it, and know people for whom the rest of it (more or less) is recognizable, that I can objectively say, with confidence, that none of what happens to either of them is really unique. So why then was this novel so freaking compelling??
The first thing that comes to mind, really, is that the writing is just absolutely stunning. The flow, tone, pacing and dialogue all approach literary perfection, smooth and effortless and intelligently unassuming. (And I listened to the audiobook, which has spot on narration). Really, I have nothing else that I can say about it other than to emphasize how wonderful it was.
But then, at base, it all comes down to Connell and Marianne. Without exaggeration, I have rarely ever been so deeply and genuinely emotionally invested in characters, both separately and together. (I know it happened with Kellen and Wavy in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, and Circe in Circe.) Rooney had me hanging on, with a white-tipped grip, to every little interaction and change and vibration between the two, from beginning to end. Their patterns were so heartbreaking, so realistically rendered, that my poor heart was twisted every which way by the end, as I followed their years of dancing back and forth and around each other, their assumptions and misinterpretations and insecurities and unconditional support and love all mixed up in an untangle-able (for both good and bad) way. Their relationship was so layered and nuanced – every single moment that Rooney chose to write for each of them had a deeper meaning or more long-term consequence that added to the complexity. And while she develops Connell and Marianne, she also works in explorations of class, family, expectations of self and society, and the complications of first love in a way that is so subtle you almost don’t even notice it’s happening until you finish and are bowled over by the quiet brilliance and humanity of it all.
This may be one of the shortest reviews I’ve written this year, but I have nothing but praise for this gorgeous novel. It touches that place of darkness and loneliness in us all, but in a way that is tender and understanding. There’s really only so many ways to say that Rooney made something truly extraordinary out of the ordinary. It’s absolutely going to make my list of favorites this year. Just…go read it!