Sally Rooney, A Master of the Modern Love Story

Illustrated by Cleo Maloney

I tell my friends to check on me if they ever catch me watching Normal People on Hulu. Or rather, rewatching. Or more accurately still, re-rewatching. Normal People is the second book by Irish writer Sally Rooney, published in 2018; it was adapted into a limited Hulu series in 2020. Normal People, like all of Rooney’s novels, is a lesson in emotional intimacy. Rooney’s works are simultaneously comforting and gut-wrenching stories that make the mundanities of everyday life feel romantic and hopeful.

Normal People follows Connell and Marianne, two young adults who grow together, then apart, and then back together again in the most authentic of ways throughout their high school and college years. Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, published in 2017, details the experiences of 21-year-old student Frances and her best friend and former girlfriend Bobbi, as Frances attempts to sustain a relationship with Nick, a married 30-year-old man. Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, published in September of this year, tells the story of 30-somethings Eileen and Alice alongside their respective romantic interests Felix and Simon as they struggle to decipher their feelings for both each other and their ever-changing world. 

These plots, which so accurately illustrate the plights and pitfalls of authentic young love amidst the prosaic problems of modern life, are where Rooney finds her niche. She’s a master of the modern love story, and is so widely recognized as such that her first two novels sold over a million copies in the United Kingdom and Ireland alone. Beautiful World, Where Are You is the best-selling fiction book of 2021 a mere three days after its publication. So why do we all love Rooney so much? And what about her narratives make them impossible to put down?

Rooney’s romances depict two characters whose conflicts within themselves and with the world around them dictate how they come to see the other person. Each character grows and evolves in ways that are representative of their setting—settings that are evocative and truthful to the world in which we all live, and especially to the world of young adulthood. All of Rooney’s characters are thus products of their environments, and the reader comes to understand their love as a consequence of the circumstances of their lives.

Rooney’s conflicts are simultaneously cinematic and banal, full of high drama while at the same time remaining believable, legitimate, and relatable. For young adult viewers, it’s addicting to see the realities of your life played out so vividly. Aspects of romance that most people don’t talk about—the clumsiness of a first kiss, or the discomfort of expressing your feelings for someone you’ve discovered or decided that you love. Rooney does not gloss over the gritty details. Even in the realms in which readers have become accustomed to editorialization, like mental health—she unflinchingly depicts one character’s unraveling—or sex. In one particularly striking dialogue in Normal People, Connell tells Marianne, “It’s just that, if you wanted to stop or anything, we can obviously stop. If it hurts, or anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward, you just say.” While tackling all of these topics, Rooney writes in prose that is both poetic and understated, containing just the right amount of detail to be convincing.

While Normal People’s protagonists attend university in Ireland, they’d feel at home at almost any college campus in the country, or even the world. Marianne transforms from somewhat of a loner in high school to the girl who “came to college and got pretty.” Connell, on the other hand, experiences the opposite transformation, from a popular jock in high school to someone totally out of place at their eccentric liberal arts college in the city. Their struggles of belonging within their communities and with accepting themselves resonate on the page, the screen, and at Yale. 

In Conversations with Friends, Rooney writes, “Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.” Rooney relishes the wait. She asks us to do the same, and we agree.

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