Review: Normal People

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Readers love Sally Rooney. She is a young Irish writer whose debut novel, Conversations With Friends, seemed to set the literary world on fire. It was nominated 2018 Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize, and the 2018 Folio Prize

Her second novel, Normal People (which at this point is decidedly less new as I took my sweet time actually putting a post up after we already had to wait an extra year to get it in Canada) was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, was named Irish Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, Waterstone’s Book of the Year 2018, and it won the Costa Book Award for the Novel category. It was long-listed for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Basically Sally Rooney is a literary heavy hitter.

You know where I’m going with this don’t you?

Normal People wasn’t really my jam.

normal people

It’s about these two teenagers, Connell and Marianne, who are from the same kind of crappy Irish town. Marianne is from a wealthy, super dysfunctional family and Connell is the son of their house cleaner. He’s super popular, a student athlete, she has no friends and is incredibly private. They form an unlikely friendship which becomes romantic and they have sex every chance they get over the course of their last year of school. A year later and they are both at Trinity in Dublin and their paths cross again. The novel checks in on them periodically as they continue to grow and change but ultimately find their way back to each other.

Initially I liked the prose. It’s obvious that Rooney can write. She’s able to do a lot in few words. While this impressed me, it also held me at a bit of a distance – I never got to the point where I cared about either Connell or Marianne. I did get kind of darker One Day vibes but unfortunately I loved the movie more than the book (cardinal sin).

And while I appreciated that the ending was a bit open – there are infinite ways the reader can imagine their story ending – I just didn’t care about what happened to either of them. Normal People was missing the kind of pathos I’ve come to expect from a book by an Irish writer. Ultimately, when Connell and Marianne are together, they will always revert to the people they were back in their hometown. When I finished reading this, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing, their relationship, their push and pull through life, was about sex. Their early romantic relationship was so all consuming that it suffocated any chance of developing into more.


Literary Wives: The Blazing World

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt.

Ariel @  One Little Library
Kate @ Kate Rae Davis
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink
TJ @ My Book Strings

The Book


Artist Harriet Burden has long suspected that her work has been discounted as serious because of her gender. So she decides to test out her theory by having three different men act as her work’s proxies. She chooses the men at different stages of their careers and has them pass off her work as their own, to great critical acclaim. But her last cover, Rune, a successful artist in his own right turns on her, refusing to allow her to claim back her work. Their intense struggle ends only when Rune dies under mysterious circumstances.


My Thoughts

I was so ready to like this book. An angry women intent on proving that her industry doesn’t take her seriously because of her gender, a struggle that ends in the bizarre death of her male foil? Sign me up!

Unfortunately, for me, the execution of it left something to be desired. I’m not ever really a huge fan of diary style books. I don’t like the disjointed feeling of articles and research and journal entries making up the narrative of a book and that was no different in the case of The Blazing World. I also found it odd that a book about a woman asserting her place in her creative world was told by other people – maybe that was the point and my dense ass missed it. But it annoyed me. Especially when I was reading articles or interviews by men who were critical of Harriet and her work, calling her a liar and a hanger on and only known because she was the wife of her late husband, the critic Felix Lord (great name). Again, maybe that was the point but it grated on me.

Even when there were sections of the book that I was enjoying, they were always short lived. I never felt like I got a good sense of Harriet, that the chaos of her inner life made it impossible to get to know her. I’m not sure that anyone in her life ever actually got to know her; Phineas Q.Eldridge, her second cover, probably got the closest of anyone.

I was also promised a bizarre death, one that was aswirl with rumour and intrigue and in the end, it was a pretty run of the mill suicide?

I think I got so caught up in the style of the book that I wasn’t able to appreciate the content. Which is a shame because there might have been something to it. For me though, The Blazing World didn’t spark any great feeling in this reader, except relief when I finished it.

What does the book say about being a wife?

It’s taken me a while to get buy head wrapped around the question of being a wife within the scope of The Blazing World. There is the obvious parts that have to do with Harriet married to Felix and how her career took a backseat to his. That while he was a successful art dealer, responsible for kickstarting numerous art careers, she was a wife and mother, known only as “Felix’s wife.”

Most of the time I was struck by Harriet’s anger, not at being a wife, but at being dismissed because of her gender. Right after Felix’s death, she is annoyed at being known  just as her husband’s wife, which is what starts her thinking about her new project. But that project becomes less about having been a wife and more about the disappointments of her work not being critically recognized because they were just the dabblings of a woman. She rages at the men in her life not because she felt trapped in her marriage but because she’s been discounted her entire life, starting with a father who wished she was a boy. She spends her entire life consumed by anger and in the end, it felt like all that rage killed her. It was her reproductive organs, the ones that defined her sex, that turned deadly.

But each of Harriet’s ‘collaborations’ with the male artists she picks for her project can be seen as a kind of creative marriage. Within each relationship Harriet must assert her role, must fight to find the light working in the shadows of her ‘husband.’ Ultimately, with her final ‘husband’, Harriet fails and she withers in the darkness of this failure.

The Blazing World seems to say that if women want success in their careers, they can’t be trapped in marriage, that the demands of a husband, the destructive forces of the needs of children, will destroy any plans for career success. In order for a woman to fulfill her career ambitions, she needs to stand on her own, not weighed down by others. In attempting to show the world that her work hasn’t been seen because she’s been the wrong sex, Harriet discovers that she’s entered into another kind of marriage that has snuffed out the glowing embers of what could have been a great career on her own terms.


The Sisters Brothers

You’ve heard of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt right? The winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize? The book that was also a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Man Booker Prize and was a national bestseller?

That’s the one.

Patrick DeWitt had a way better 2011 than I did.

So The Sisters Brothers is essentially a Western, not normally my cup of tea, but with all that buzz how could I not ask for it for Christmas? The Sisters Brothers are Charlie and Eli, a couple of Oregonian hitmen in 1851. They are ruthless, they are well known and they are not terribly close.

The more time that passes since I’ve read it (this was my final book in 2011) the more fond I grow of it. Initially, when I finished it, I was left wanting more. I felt like it just ended, and like a true 21st Centurian, I wanted more instant gratification. I wanted everything to be resolved in a neat little package for me. Preferably with a bow. But that’s not how DeWitt operates.

This book is chock full of characters. And when I say characters I don’t just mean that there are a lot of names, I mean that there are a lot of crazy, original, often hilarious, characters. There is the weeping man that weaves his way in and out of the story, the kid they find with the abandoned wagons, the hotel magnate who obviously doesn’t know who he is dealing with and there are Charlie and Eli themselves.

Eli is pretty introspective for a hitman. He has a crappy horse, who he begins to feel a kinship for, even though riding on him is not easy. His brother treats him like crap and doesn’t seem to have the same moral issues as Eli when it comes to doing their job.

I admit freely that this was my first Western. I enjoyed it. It was different. There were parts of it that I didn’t really get, but maybe some more rumination, or even a second read will clear them up. DeWitt has a couple of ‘Intermissions’ – a cool idea for a book. Not sure that I have ever come across that before. But I didn’t understand the content, I felt like I was missing something. Maybe I was.

Overall, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I know better than the brilliant folks who sit on the award panels. Clearly The Sisters Brothers is something special. And it was recently released in paperback, which makes it that much easier to pick up.

Stars: 4

Grade: B