The Sun Also Rises is not exactly a memorable novel. A decade after last reading it, the plot and the individual characters have largely escaped me. The things I do remember are the setting, the mood, the themes — young people adrift, as captured so famously in the Gertrude Stein epigraph — and Hemingway’s writing style. There was this confidence in his sentences, simple but revelatory, stripped bare and more than capable of meeting the readerly gaze.
With Normal People, Sally Rooney enters similar voice-of-a-generation territory. It was a favorite book of 2019 and the BBC/Hulu adaptation does it justice.
Like Hemingway, Rooney’s writing is sparing but evocative. Never overwrought, never dwelling longer than necessary. It’s a more modern confidence, maybe a bit more vulnerable, maybe more feminine — in a good way. She works wonders in dialogue.
Where The Sun Also Rises is post-war, with characters reeling from its fallout and the subsequent cultural upheaval, Normal People is post-recession, late capitalism. The scars are imprinted and reflected out differently, but there is, under the surface, this sense of having been marked by a trauma bigger and broader than any individual circumstance.
It’s in that context — again, this sense of young people adrift, struggling to find contentment in a world not necessarily designed to deliver it — that we watch Marianne and Connell fall in and out of each other’s orbit.
“Two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.”
It is equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking. Rooney is skillful enough to bring them both to life and explore distinct emotional depths in each. She pries them open as they do each other.
“Her eyes fill up with tears again and she closes them. Even in memory she will find this moment unbearably intense, and she’s aware of this now, while it’s happening.”
It’s intimate and immersive, but also transportive — not to sun-soaked Spain, but to gray Ireland, to pubs and university streets in Dublin, and to the million mundanities of everyday life.
Normal People is a brilliant book.
And while I don’t agree with classifications of Sally Rooney as a strictly millennial writer — aren’t love, loss, class, and coming of age more universal themes? — it’s impossible to deny that she has captured something unique and important about this moment.
She is a Hemingway-level voice that we get to appreciate in the moment, at her prime, not as assigned reading in the AP English classes of the 2050s.
Read Normal People. Then binge the show. Then spend weeks debating whether you can pull off a thin silver chain.