Body Talk: A Normal People Book Review

Today’s theme is “damaged,” brought to you by Sally Rooney’s Normal People (the book, not the TV show).

My good friend K says Normal People is an accurate portrayal of how relationships work. If this is how relationships work, it’s little wonder most of them go kaput.

Normal People is about a young man and a young woman who hook up in their final year of high school and go on to attend the same university together. They have sex the whole time. It’s the biggest thing that connects them, the sex. They both have inner demons: the man is working-class, obsessed with being accepted and incapable of (or unwilling to) admit how much he likes her; the woman is rich, so she has the luxury of not giving a shit, but her life would be better if her brother wasn’t a physically abusive dickbag. Something about sleeping with each other makes them feel normal, or whatever way they believe normal is supposed to feel, and so they sleep together a lot, because apparently, that is what normal people do.

Young, horny and damaged: they’re normal people. Normal people who internalize too much.

A lot of feelings left unsaid fall by the wayside. Even if they’ve convinced themselves in some twisted way that they are only ever really truly honest – with themselves and to each other – when they’re together, they’re so busy having sex, at the end of it all, they’re so exhausted, they’re unable to form more than a few sentences. So it becomes all about internalizing, which forms the on-off dynamic of their exhausting, drawn out relationship. It sounds convoluted, but it’s really very simple. If they could stop for a minute and make time for an actual, honest conversation, maybe then they wouldn’t be so fucked up. I spent a lot of time i internally screaming at these two to JUST TELL EACH OTHER HOW YOU FEEL, because guess what? People can’t read minds.

But no one wants to read about a perfectly normal relationship. It’s boring. People want drama. They want tears. They want hurt feelings, and slammed doors, and aggressive break-up sex, or aggressive make-up sex, and moments where the heroine decides she’ll just go ahead and let men treat her like dirt because it’s the only time she really thinks she can feel something. People want to read about broken people. It’s the new escapism. And it works, because it’s true – perfectly normal relationships are boring. Nothing happens. There is no conflict. And conflict is what makes a story worth reading.

I like conflict. I just don’t like it when a particular conflict can be avoided. A relationship works when people are honest with themselves and with each other. Do normal people not talk to each other anymore? Relationships can’t work if no one in it wants to talk about it. And bodies can only say so much. Great sex isn’t a bad way to get a relationship going. Sometimes, it really is all about the horizontal tango. It’s certainly a fun way to spend the first few months of being together. But people can’t just bone all the time, and sex can’t function as a substitute for honest communication. Great sex doesn’t fix everything.

Maybe to some it’s just more romantic to be troubled, to have issues, to be damaged. Sometimes I wonder if people have fallen in love with the idea of being damaged, being conflicted. It’s as if being such frees them from the burden of having to be actual individuals who are accountable for their own actions, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand how hard it is just to breathe, waaah, I’m the victim here, waaah. I’m not interested in assigning blame. I’m interested in: what are you going to do about your current circumstances? How are you going to fix it?

It’s why the character I would get along with the best in Normal People is Niall, the roommate. “Niall is a practical person,” the hero thinks. “He shows compassion in practical ways.” I like Niall. I like practical people. That’s just my version of normal.

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