I expected more. While well-written — in the sense that, as with real life, the moments of sublime beauty are interspersed with observations of banal minutiae — it’s essentially a deep dive into the mind of a young, heterosexual white couple. Marianne is a girl from a rich, abusive family. She’s unpopular in the Carricklea high school she attends, because she doesn’t really care about what other people think and has no interest in ingratiating herself, plus she’s smart and argumentative, at least at school. Connell is the most popular guy in school, handsome and on the football team. He’s the only child of a single mom who works as a cleaner to support them, including at Marianne’s family home. Connell and Marianne get involved in high school, but he’s uninterested in being open about their connection. She persuades him to apply to Trinity with her, but their relationship, unsurprisingly, falls apart before they make it there.
The novel follows them over the next few years as they come together, fall apart, rinse, repeat. Along the way, Marianne channels her self-loathing into sex. I’m not entirely sure whether Sally Rooney meant to be kink shaming but as a sex positive person, I felt really uncomfortable with some of the depictions here. It wasn’t quite 50 Shades Of Grey bad but it was enough to make me wonder why any purportedly intelligent millennial wouldn’t at least Google shit.
And while I was inclined to be sympathetic to these characters at the beginning, as the book wore on and the characters kept insisting on miscommunicating, it felt increasingly difficult to care about their self-inflicted issues. At least Connell went to therapy, and I’m glad it wasn’t treated as a shameful thing. Overall, this wasn’t quite MFA nonsense — and it was very readable despite the unconventional punctuation: I crushed it in a day or so — but I still don’t really understand all the acclaim.
Edited to add a link to a review of this novel and the rest of Sally Rooney’s oeuvre so far that I am wild with jealousy at not having written myself. It also references 50 Shades Of Grey, and is gorgeously savage in its takedown: https://thepointmag.com/criticism/normal-novels/