“The great millennial novelist”—the mantle has been thrust, by Boomers and Gen Xers alike, upon the Irish writer Sally Rooney, whose two carefully observed and gentle comedies of manners both appeared before her twenty-eighth birthday. With this mantle have come prizes and money. Nearly every review has mentioned at least the prizes.
Cozy in scope and romantic in spirit, the novels are mild and tender portraits of Irish college students in the recent present. In the first, Conversations with Friends, Frances and Bobbi, two best friends in their early twenties who used to date and occasionally sleep together, fall for Nick and Melissa, a couple in their thirties. Frances begins an affair with Nick, threatening her relationship with Bobbi and allowing her to find some independence.
Normal People halves the action. Instead of a romantic quadrangle with two couples, we have “the chemistry between two people who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone”: Marianne and Connell, whose courtship, chronicled from high school through college, is fraught because Marianne’s family is rich and Connell’s poor. When the book opens, his mother is cleaning her mother’s home. Connell is too embarrassed to bring nerdy Marianne to a dance, and the couple split, but when they end up at the same university they reunite, dating on and off while struggling to figure out who they are.
Rooney is primarily concerned with social relations: How do people have power over one another? (“Power” is a word she uses often.) Her novels are attuned to the small differences of class and its millennial sister, privilege: the girl who wears thrift store clothes because it’s cool versus the girl who wears thrift store clothes because that’s all she can afford. “I struggled to make conversation with people of my own parents’ background, afraid that my vowels sounded pretentious or my large flea-market coat made me look rich,” thinks Frances in Conversations with Friends. “Philip [a friend] also suffered from looking rich, though in his case because he really was.” Her protagonists often analyze their own status—what it means to wear a necklace from the cheap British catalog store Argos or to drink milk directly from the bottle. Who is the real writer? Who is “normal” and who is “impressive”?
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