Anyone remotely bookish has heard of Normal People. At its core, the story follows a ‘will they won’t they’ coming of age relationship between two teenagers, set in Ireland. At face value, it appears to be nothing out of the ordinary.
Suddenly, by April 2020, as England and much of the world was in a state of lockdown, it was hard to escape Sally Rooney as the BBC produced a TV adaptation of Normal People, which drove numerous sales of the book.
Rooney has now become somewhat of a buzzword within the bookish community. She’s often viewed as being like marmite. Either loved or hated. I was part of the latter camp for a while, but this was before I gave Normal People enough of a chance and had read any other novels by Rooney.
For an author who has only just hit her thirties, she’s done well. Normal People, her second novel after Conversations with Friends, was named the Book of the Year by the British Book Awards and won the Costa Book Awards for Best Novel in 2018. In the US alone, sales of the book have recently topped 184,000.
In 2021, the book community were on tenterhooks, awaiting the release of Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You (BWWAY). In the days after the release, the media published images of queues of fans outside bookshops across the country who wanted to be the first to get their hands on a copy.
Although I saw a lot of discourse online about how cool it is to dislike Rooney and, on the contrary, liking Rooney is akin to showing how ‘cultured’ you are, something is impressive about the publication of a book causing so much excitement.
In a time of shortened attention spans, TikTok and reality TV, it’s wonderful the publication of a book can still cause excitement and anticipation.
I’ve ridden the waves with Rooney. I’ve gone from disliking her work to not understanding the hype and to falling in love with her novels. Wherever you stand with Rooney, I hope this article will shed light on why her work has become so popular and what she adds to the literary scene.
Her Focus on Imperfection Is Refreshing
Like any edited art form, novels can sometimes succumb to presenting life as a glorified highlight reel. As a result, they can sometimes give readers false expectations of themselves, relationships and friendships. Life always seems better in films, and with books, this can also sometimes be the case. But reading Rooney is different.
Imperfection is at the heart of all her novels. All of her characters and protagonists are deeply flawed human beings. They make countless mistakes, are selfish, and often harm their own relationships. Rooney’s critiques often point out that creating such dislikable characters alienates a group of readers.
After all, how can you empathise with a cold, bitter character like Marianne in Normal People, who only wants to punish herself with detrimental relationships? How can you like Connell, who is too childish to tell his friends he’s seeing Marianne?
More recently, how can you like Alice, the recluse writer in Beautiful World, Where Are You, who likes to tell people she has more money than what’s good for her but struggles to maintain friendships and communicate with people in the real world?
Well, we like these characters because of their flaws. They don’t glorify real life or give us false expectations. Instead, through their mistakes and downfalls, we learn about how fallible we are as human beings, and Rooney paints an accurate picture of life in your 20s. It’s precisely about screwing up.
Creating flawed protagonists and characters may make it more difficult for readers to sink into their shoes, but it’s worth it as we walk away realising that to be young and to be human is messy, complicated and flawed.
Her Writing Is Accessible
Many highly acclaimed or well-known authors only appeal to certain readers. This can be applied to the greats or classic writers like Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte or Jane Austen. Even though all these authors should be celebrated in their own right, they do not necessarily provide the most accessible writing. By that, I mean something easy to read for everyone.
Rooney does that. Initially, at face value, I thought her characteristic neglect of speech marks and dialogue was pretentious. I didn’t see the point. I thought it was purely a literary technique designed to get her acclaim. I was wrong. After reading all of her work and particularly Beautiful World Where Are You, I finally get it.
The third person address Rooney uses simplifies the reading experience. You’re not distracted by dialogue, speech marks, or other structural conventions usually present in a novel. The lack of this allows you to sink into the story. Sure, it can take some getting used to at first, but before you know it, you forget it is not there.
This lack of dialogue and speech marks makes you feel like you are part of the conversation or scene. It opens it up for Rooney, and she can then focus on other things. Like painting scenes, emotions and conversations with more depth. Each of her books, as a result, have so many layers to unpack. It took me three reads and many conversations with others to finally understand and grow to love Normal People.
Rooney has a unique writing style. But for once, it’s not purely literary or for acclaim. It has an effect. And that effect makes her work accessible, addictive and fully immersive.
Her Stories Hit The Spot
Every book that’s ever been written is in part a reflection of the society the author is writing within. Even without trying, they offer insight into that particular time in history when a story was being written, whether by writing style or the technologies or commentary featured within the stories that are written throughout time.
Rooney has witnessed so much success as an author because she perfectly encapsulates what it is like to be living through this moment. In her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, she brings climate change, the problems with capitalism, the difficulties of maintaining human relationships, friendships, class and loneliness all to life in a unique way that can only be set during this time.
At their core, all of her novels deal with love, sex and relationships. In Normal People, we see how miscommunication and a lack of trust drives a relationship apart over the years.
The difficulties of maintaining friendships feature in every one of her novels. Rooney does this wonderful thing in BWWAY where she addresses her critiques that writing about love within the contemporary fiction framework is a privilege.
But do you know why it works? Because it’s what we need. Rooney is deservedly popular because she hits the nail on the head with her socio-political commentary, set within a very readable love story framework.
Rooney Is Self-Critical and Understands Her Audience
Writers often get the reputation of being full of themselves. You’ve got to be, to spend your whole life sitting in a room, thinking you’re going to be the next Booker Prize winner, all the whilst forgetting about to live normal, human lives. Well, this isn’t always true, but sometimes it is.
A fascinating element about BWWAY is when Rooney frequently addresses some of her own biggest criticisms but in a subtle way. She does this through the protagonist, Alice, who is a new writer. As Alice gets into a new relationship with Felix, he questions her on her chosen career path. This often delves into money, privilege, the publishing industry and the challenge and benefits of being an author.
Throughout the novel, Rooney creates a broader conversation about being a writer and the publishing industry as a whole. Alice is often used to focus on the critical stereotypes of the writer life. For example, being sheltered, away from the world, writing in a huge house, and never worrying about money. But Rooney also displays the difficulties of being a writer, coping with fame, self-doubt and wanting to hide away from the world when all you’ve ever wanted to do is write, not become a household name. Alice, the protagonist, also struggles to maintain in-depth relationships and keep in contact with another protagonist in the novel, Eileen.
Although, of course, it’s not Rooney writing about her life, you can’t help but view it as a way for her to address and respond to her many critiques over the years. It’s not only very clever but shows us, readers, that she is self-critical, far from hubristic — but in tune with her audience and doesn’t think too highly of herself.
Her Writing Offers Something Different that Doesn’t Try Too Hard
For everything I’ve already said about Rooney and why I think she’s so popular — it boils down to one overriding reason. Her books read and feel different from the usual contemporary fiction selection. They talk about the significant issues of our times, but not in a ranty overbearing way. Her characters are flawed and imperfect. The stories themselves are simple because they are not the centrepiece and never aim to be.
Reading Rooney is like gulping fresh air after you’ve been stuck all day indoors. Once you start breathing outside, you don’t want to go back indoors, and every other book you read after will feel subpar. Rooney wins all around because she doesn’t try too hard. Take it from someone who spent months despising Normal People, who is now raving about her at every opportunity and who is even writing this post to convince fence-sitters otherwise.
Rooney is different. She’s what we need right now and what we’ll always turn to in the future for a fresh look at the world.
You may think doing a one-eighty on Sally Rooney shows how fickle a person I am. Maybe it does. But it wasn’t other people who managed to change my mind about her; it was Rooney herself. As I read more of her work and Normal People three times over, I well and truly got hooked. I could unpack layers I hadn’t noticed before and started to appreciate why she has become so popular.
Rooney’s writing is effortless but, at the same time — manages to do everything all at once. She is one of those authors who are worth the hype. Now, anyone will have to fight to convince me otherwise.
“What if the meaning of life on earth is not eternal progress toward some unspecified goal — the engineering and production of more and more powerful technologies, the development of more and more complex and abstruse cultural forms? What if these things just rise and recede naturally, like tides, while the meaning of life remains the same always — just to live and be with other people?”
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