I’ll be the first to admit, I definitely don’t understand the hype around Sally Rooney’s books. With all the coverage Normal People has received since it came out, I thought I’d begin with her first book as a primer.
It turned out I kind of hated it!
For starters, I didn’t think a single one of the characters was likable – which for a book focused on character studies and less so on plot, seems to me a major drawback. Frances was bland and boring and too in-her-head and passive. At one point she just states outright that she never wants to work, just coast by in life. Melissa and Nick clearly had some relationship issues they needed to work out..together, not while having affairs with a pair of college students. And don’t even get me started on Bobbi – she was flaky, cruel, and thought she was the deepest, most intelligent person in any room. I hated her relationship with Frances because it had a horrible sort of master/servant quality to it, where Frances was kind of pathetically tied to her while she just went out and flirted around.
To be fair, I can still find things to appreciate about this book – for one, Rooney is really good at putting into words the subtleties of human interactions, and how we’ve been socialized to act around others. Like when Frances was visiting Melissa’s house for the first time,
I felt excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s home, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming.
When I read that, I thought yes!! That is exactly what I do too when meeting new people – try to smile but not too much, sound interested but not overly enthusiastic, have a few prepared soundbites in case of awkward pauses, etc.
Or perhaps when Frances drafts an email to Nick:
I need to be fun and likeable, I thought. A fun person would send a thank-you e-mail. I got up and typed a brief message congratulating Nick on his performance and expressing gratitude for the tickets. I moved the sentences here and there, and then seemingly at random I hit the send button. Afterward I shut my laptop and went back to sitting on the floor.
I’ve done the whole write up a perfectly fine email, then worry it doesn’t sound good so delete most of it, then rewrite, then spend entirely too much time editing even more, then finally send and hope they don’t think it’s weird thing my entire email-writing life. Does anyone else do this too? I don’t think I’ve ever seen any author describe these small things before, and it was oddly validating.
In spite of that, it was pretty clear: this was not the book for me!