Have you ever read a book, which made you wonder after you finished it if the critics and you have read different books? That's exactly how I felt about Normal People by Sally Rooney.
Just look at the lavish praise from the newspapers - "The best novel published this year" (The Time), "A future classic" (The Guardian), "The most enjoyable novel of the year" (Daily Telegraph), "Quite astonishing" (Independent), "Rooney has given us a spellbinding twenty-first century love story..." (TLS) etc etc
I wanted to like this book, but I was left rather underwhelmed and disenchated with it.
Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron grow in the same provincial town in the west of Ireland and go to the same school. She lives in a white mansion, while he is a child of a cleaner. He is a popular kid at school, while she is almost a pariah.
He doesn't talk to her at school or even look at her. But there is a spark between them, and they start seeing each other in secret.
It's all very much Common People, "I want to do whatever common people do... I want to sleep with common people like you..."
And while Connell doesn't take Marianne to the supermarket, he does take her to the ghost estate, right behind the school, where empty window holes are covered over with plastic sheeting and where the teens go to drink and have sex on dirty mattresses.
"I couldn't put Normal People down", enthused Elif Batuman.
Well, I could. And I did, many times actually. I truly struggled with this book. I found it so uninspiring, but challenged myself to keep going, so that I could have a formed opinion of my own.
The main characters are so insipid, shallow and unpleasant. They are almost lacking in personality. I couldn't relate to them on any level, and not because of their age.
Their on-off relationship is borderline tedious.
Marianne is supposed to be intelligent, but she's lacking the most basic understanding of how the other people live.
When her friend Joanne works in the office, Marianne thinks of her as "a citizen of a country M has never visited, the country of paid employment." She argues with her friend that the time she spends at work is the time she'd never get back and money is just a social construct.
Her family is obnoxious to the point of a caricature. Marianne has been mentally and physically abused, which might explain to some extent why she had stopped developing psychologically and why she goes through life with an it's-easier-to-be-submissive attitude. Her abusive brother and mother are very one-dimensional, they are portrayed as nasty, without any in-depth explanation.
Marianne's life seems to be like a yo-yo. First she's a social outcast at school, then becomes one of the most fashionable popular creatures at college, then moves into obscurity again after leaving one of her numerous abusive relationships, only to be accepted again by the old crowd, who crave her forgiveness.
Marianne seems to look at herself as a man's chattel. Any man's chattel, without a value of her own, which I found utterly depressing.
"She experiences a depression so deep it is tranquilising, she eats whatever he tells her to eat, she experiences no more ownership over her own body than if it were a piece of litter".
"Her body is just an item of property, and though it has been handed around and misused in various ways, it has somehow belonged to him, and she feels like returning it to him now".
You almost feel like shaking her: A woman's body is not a property!!! Stop being so pathetic!
And that's the story of her life. There is always an unsuitable boyfriend, and she is so needy. It is all so awfully demeaning.
The book is hailed as an exquisite love story. Yes, how exquisite indeed, when one school child says the other school child, "Is it OK if I come in your mouth?"
I also didn't enjoy the style of writing. There were too many descriptions of the minutiae of their lives, like washing the dishes, setting the table, uncorking the bottle, sipping wine.
The story is a non-story really. Marianne and Connell have sex, break up, meet and have sex again, break up, etc etc. All the drama was convoluted and self-absorbed. You really want them to break up for good, and just go on with their lives.
I haven't read a book recently which would rattle and irk me as much as Normal People.
If that's the portrayal of the new generation, then it's a very miserable and depressing reality.