Longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, Normal People tells the complicated, awkward love story of two seemingly polar opposites from Sligo, following their relationship as it spans their school and university years

Whether you’re new to Normal People or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.

Written by Emily Facoory

Publication date and time: Published


In school, Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. People know that Marianne lives in the white mansion with the big driveway and that Connell’s mother is a cleaner, but no one knows of the special connection beyond these facts. Despite these social tangles, a relationship grows between the pair and when they are both awarded places to study at Trinity College Dublin, a special bond lasts long into the following years.

Longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, Sally Rooney’s novel is a tender and deeply relatable millennial love story – a simple yet profound exploration of the many ways one person can change another’s life.


Normal People by Sally Rooney

The main characters

Marianne Sheridan

At school, Marianne is intelligent, perceptive and outspoken, but mostly people notice that ‘she wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put make-up on her face’. While a misfit, she outwardly pays no attention to her classmates’ opinions of her. Marianne’s family is well-off and lives in ‘the white mansion with the driveway’. After school, Marianne attends Trinity College Dublin where she is transformed, and now finally allowed to grow into herself.

Connell Waldron

Connell is one of the most popular boys at high school. Athletic and a high achiever, the only thing he doesn’t have is money. ‘He’s studious, he plays centre forward in football, he’s good-looking, he doesn’t get into fights. Everybody likes him.’ Connell’s family is working class and his mother is a cleaner at Marianne’s house, which is where the two begin their tryst. Conscious of other people’s opinions, Connell keeps his romance with Marianne hidden and avoids speaking to her at school due to her reputation. After school, Connell also attends Trinity College, yet finds himself struggling to fit in, now in unfamiliar territory without his high-school social status.

Paul Mescal as Connell and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne in the television adaptation of Normal People

About the author

Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, which grew out of characters in her 2016 short story ‘At the Clinic’, led to a slew of award nominations and the sobriquet ‘the voice of her generation’.

Rooney was just 27 when Normal People sent her reputation – earned from the success of her first book, Conversations with Friends – stratospheric. A hugely popular television adaptation, for which she was a screenwriter, only sent it higher. Some critics questioned whether the book was in fact really a sophisticated ‘young adult’ novel, but the Booker judges found in it a universality and quality of writing that rendered age bands redundant. Rooney has become a figure of fascination for the media, something her avowed discomfort with fame and the public eye has only intensified.

Sally Rooney

What the critics said

Lauren Sarazen, The Washington Post

‘Using clear language, dialogue is rendered to express deadpan self-consciousness, revealing Marianne and Connell’s insecurities and evasions. Rooney’s ability to dive deep into the minute details of her characters’ emotional lives while maintaining the cool detached exterior of the Instagram age reflects our current preoccupation with appearance over vulnerability. Here, youth, love and cowardice are unavoidably intertwined, distilled into a novel that demands to be read compulsively, in one sitting.’

Andrew Martin, The New York Times Book Review

Normal People, even as it is almost physically impossible to stop reading once begun, feels in some ways like the slightly less impressive follow-up album by a beloved band […]. It’s wonderful to hear the sound of Rooney’s voice on the page again, and the pleasures of her storytelling are even more immediate than in the first novel. But the book can also seem rushed and conventional in ways her debut did not.’

Maureen Corrigan, NPR

‘The great poignancy of reading Normal People derives from being totally swept along by the force of Marianne’s and Connell’s psychological insights into each other or events and then witnessing how the solid certainty of those insights dissolves four months later or seven months later […] Rooney nails the bitter smarts of a certain kind of willfully odd teenage girl.’

Joanne Kaufman, The Wall Street Journal

Normal People manages to feel utterly up-to-date and a throwback to a more distant time… Ms. Rooney gets it all. She understands messy emotions—another way of saying that she understands the particular, peculiar shape of love and longing. Readers may have a difficult time remembering the last time they felt so invested in a novel’s characters.’

Julie Myerson, The Guardian

‘This is a beautiful novel with a deep and satisfying intelligence at its heart. It’s emotionally and sexually admirably frank (Marianne’s masochistic streak takes her down some dark paths), but also kind and wise, witty and warm. In the end, a little like Rooney’s first book, it’s a sympathetic yet pithy examination of the myriad ways in which men and women try – and all too often fail – to understand each other.’

Paul Mescal as Connell in the television adaptation of Normal People

What Sally Rooney said about Normal People

‘The reason my characters are people of my generation is honestly because I’m imaginatively quite limited. I write about stuff I know about – not things that have happened to me, but things that I can imagine happening to somebody like me. And I feel a responsibility to respect the dignity of those characters. It’s very much at the heart of my attitude toward fiction. I couldn’t justify inventing people just to make fun of them as if they’re inferior to me, the author who made them up.

‘I feel no obligation to act as an interpreter. I’m not trying to say, “Hey, everyone who’s not our age, this is what it’s like!” In fact, I feel a lot of anxiety about being “chosen” or labelled the voice of a generation because I represent a privileged slice of that generation – I’m not really a representative emissary.’

Read the full interview on Oprah Daily here.

‘If you think love is something worth going on with, there’s so much pain inherent in that. It’s a question of how you can make sense of that pain, how you can open yourself to that pain knowing that it’s the price of being open to being with other people. That’s true in a family context too, and in the context of intimate friends. These characters are learning about that in a romantic relationship, but the same question haunts all of our relationships.’

‘When I hear the phrase “sex scene,” it’s interesting for me, because it’s a scene, so it does what any scene should do. If you’re only writing it in order to show that the characters have sex, you could just say they had sex. That’s all that’s being communicated. For it to be worthy of a scene, something has to change, because scenes are not about moments of exposition – scenes are about dynamic and change. I only write about sex when I feel it’s telling us something different or new about these characters – when it’s showing something actually happening to them rather than just filling you in on the fact that they have a sex life. That can be done faster!’

Read the full interview in Esquire.

Sally Rooney

Questions and discussion points

‘If she wanted, she could make a big show of saying hello to Connell in school. See you this afternoon, she could say, in front of everyone. Undoubtedly it would put him in an awkward position, which is the kind of thing she usually seems to enjoy. But she has never done it.’ (Page 3). Though Marianne had every opportunity to reveal that she knows Connell outside of school, and their secret relationship, she never did so. Why do you think this is the case? And what effect did this choice have on them both? 

Marianne and Connell never label their relationship. While the reasons it’s undefined when they are at school are clear, why, when they are beyond the judgement of their classmates, do they still avoid any formal labels – and thus commitment to each other?

The issue of class and social status is a prevalent theme in Normal People, with Connell coming from a working-class background and Marianne from a wealthy family. To what extent does class contribute to conflict and tension within their relationship, especially after they go to university?

The Booker Prize judges described Normal People as ‘written in compressed, composed, allusive prose that invites you to read behind the lines.’ In simple terms, the novel is written without quotation marks or chapters. Why do you think Rooney decided to write in this manner, and how does it serve the reading experience?

Marianne has grown up surrounded by abuse. Her father was physically abusive, a cycle we see repeated by her brother. Her mother is often complicit. We then see these traits appear in Marianne’s romantic and sexual relationships. What underlying messages may the author be trying to impart to the reader about power and control? 

‘She closes her eyes. He probably won’t come back, she thinks. Or he will, differently. What they have now they can never have back again.’ (Pages 265 - 266). In the final pages of the novel, Connell gets accepted to a New York university, and Marianne insists he must go. Rooney ends the story here – an ambiguous moment for the reader to fill in the gaps. Discuss the emotional impact of this ending, and what you think is next for Connell and Marianne. 

The novel spans several years, from January 2011 to February 2015, encompassing Marianne and Connell’s final year of school and lasting until their graduation from university. Reflecting on the beginning of the novel, what changes did you see within Connell and Marianne as they grew, both together and apart? 

In an interview with Esquire, Rooney said: ‘Miscommunication is something novelists have always been interested in. As a writer, you’re interested in language, and you’re interested in where language fails.’ Much of the novel is concerned with misunderstanding and miscommunication: Connell and Marianne often leave their true feelings unsaid. Discuss the extent to which this is a novel about what happens when we don’t say what we really think or express how we feel.

The front cover of the UK edition depicts two figures encased in a sardine tin with the lid peeled back slightly. It is designed by South Korean artist Henn Kim, whom Rooney and her publisher Faber approached about reproducing the illustration. What do you think the symbolism behind the image is and how does it relate to Marianne and Connell’s relationship?

Normal People shows characters dealing with and affected by mental health issues at various points in their lives, including depression, anxiety and disassociation. The novel and TV series (which Rooney co-scripted) have since been praised for the realistic way these issues are addressed (‘Normal People’s presentation of depression is the most honest on TV’, said Digital Spy). Do you agree with this, and what do you think makes Rooney’s presentation of these delicate issues so authentic? 

Several reviews of Normal People describe it as a future classic with Rooney praised as a ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’ and ‘the first great millennial author’ by the Times. With its focus on modern love and its cult-like status, do you believe the book has the durability to become a true classic?

Paul Mescal as Connell in the television adaptation of Normal People

If you enjoyed this book, why not try

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward

Heaven by Meiko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd

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