This is kinda awkward because I completely forgot that I said I’d never read this… But when I saw it was available on Overdrive, I didn’t remember that and curiosity got the better of me. Whoops. And the worst part about that is, as I predicted, it wasn’t for me. Initially I was quite struck with the story and got really into reading it- sadly by the end I thought it was a pretty pedestrian literary-prize-bait. Go figure.
In fairness, I did find the opening chapters quite promising. I thought the way it handled bullying and captured feelings of isolation was realistic. And I could see why the two lovebirds couldn’t just be with each other… at first. The problem was the story got very samey after a while. I normally don’t have a problem with the miscommunication trope, but it was the constant mix-ups that started to grate on my nerves and make me question why can’t you just act like normal people? Why do you have to bring other people into your drama?
In that vein, it seemed like part of their “specialness” was that they were dysfunctional. Because as the title suggests, these aren’t Normal People. No, they’re the most *special snowflakes*: Marianne is “not like other girls” and Connell is “not like other boys”. Although, they’re both pretty much like every pretentious person with a humanities degree I’ve ever met. They’re the kind of people you feel bad for, cos no one likes them, but you also secretly get why, cos you don’t like them either. They’re the kind of insufferably pretentious people that get to call work a “social construct”, cos for them the concept is demeaning (and they have the luxury of being picky). And they’re the kind of egotistical people that never have to recognise they’re the ones in the wrong.
That’s the most infuriating part about the book. Both of the leads have pretty flat character arcs, never truly having to experience failure and brushing off most criticism (just to make the same mistakes). And amazingly, even though they constantly cheat on people and live only for themselves, it’s the world around them that’s messed up. Unlike the best stories with an unchanging protagonist, no one in the story is inspired to change- because who would be inspired by them? This lack of growth seems rooted in Rousseau’s “people are born perfect” philosophy aka society is the corrupting factor (conveniently alleviating culpability for terrible people). Which brings me onto my next problem…
The damn politics. Okay, we all know I’m biased and hate politics randomly inserted into my fiction… but guys this was on a whole new level of stupid. Cos these characters that are the kind of idiots people that think dictators like Castro are cool. Nothing says progressive like firing squads, amiright? 😉 Also, Connell is casually a Marxist, because obviously we need more positive representations of Marxists in the media (to wipe out all the blood they’ve spilled in the last 100 years). We wouldn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea (that they’re just as murderous as Nazis). Sorry, not in the mood to be a Marxist-apologist right now. Not with the harm that this ideology *continues* to do. On the funnier side, this also had the Trinity College free speech society actually inviting a Neo Nazi Holocaust denier- which was such a strawman way of dismissing people who are pro-free speech that I found it kinda amusing.
On the plus side, I did think this was infinitely more readable than Conversations With Friends… yet had a lot of the same pitfalls. There’s still no speech marks and no reason for it. I suppose if Rooney used them, the writing would lose its “specialness”, and we don’t want that. Because there’s not much else to report on the writing front. As with her other work, I didn’t get much of a sense of place, just felt like I was told we were in Ireland. On that note, Rooney did explore telling in an interesting way, having us find out Connell has depression from his filling in a form… which is different I guess (though not necessarily good).
I wasn’t impressed with much else in the book. As I mentioned, the main characters are *special*, so that kinda makes everyone else surplus to requirements (because, don’t you know, when you’re the hero, the rest of the world just revolves around you?) Even the subplot about an old friend’s suicide is there to make you feel sorry for the main character (the guy that died and his family are only visible in the periphery). Worse still, subplots like domestic abuse were explored in a superficial way with cartoonish perpetrators. I also hated the fact it was linked to sadomasochism (because apparently we’ve not moved past Fifty Shades of Grey). I also thought that Lorraine was barely sketched out- ironically for a leftist work, she is merely identifiable as a mother and cleaning lady. How forward-thinking.
Much like the book, I’m going to end on a lacklustre note, not with a bang, but the whimper of a deflating balloon. It was better for me than Conversations with Friends– however not by much.
Rating: 2/5 bananas
So, dare I ask, have you read Rooney’s work? Did you enjoy it? Do you have different perspective? Let me know in the comments either way!