One critic recently noted that the politics of Rooney’s novels were largely “gestural,” with airy mentions of Gaza or austerity protests but not much radical substance. Another suggested that her politics were essentially decorative, “more setting than subject.” I disagree. I don’t think Rooney is garnishing her love story with politics. She’s embedding politics closely and rigorously in the love story, showing how relationships can function like miniature states, and how political principles can work on an intimate scale, in the interactions of two, three, or four people.
In interviews, Rooney often talks about growing up hearing Marx’s dictum “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” from her parents, and absorbing it as if it were a universal rule, maybe something Jesus said, or, as one interviewer from The Cut put it, something somebody might embroider on a pillow. In Normal People, characters have different things at different times: money, social capital, looks. The novel suggests the possibility of a setup in which these advantages are shared and redistributed according to need. Call it a Marxism of the heart.
Love across class is a common theme in novels. In Jane Austen, clearly a model for Rooney, people are fixed in their status, or can move in one direction or the other: a person of lower status (Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice) marrying one of higher status (Darcy), or one of lower status (Wentworth, in Persuasion) earning up into a higher bracket (Anne’s). But what Rooney has is something different—a seismographer’s attention to the dips and tremors of social value, the way that, as the British writer Olivia Laing wrote, “beauty, intelligence, and class are currencies that fluctuate as unpredictably as pounds and dollars.”
At the beginning of the novel, when the characters are in high school, Connell’s stock is higher. Marianne is rich, and, yes, Connell’s mother cleans her house, but she is aloof and odd, someone who “wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face.” Connell is athletic and well liked. They have an immediate attraction, but he keeps it secret because he is afraid of what his friends will think.
After high school, when they both attend Trinity College, the seesaw reverses: Marianne’s gawkiness becomes glamour, and Connell feels out of place against a backdrop of waxed hunting jackets and champagne. Marianne’s status “elevated Connell to the status of rich-adjacent: someone for whom surprise birthday parties are thrown and cushy jobs are procured out of nowhere.” The father of one of her new friends “was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis—not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.”
They circle, always seeming to misunderstand each other at some crucial moment. At one point, Connell loses a job and can’t pay rent for the summer in Dublin. He tries to ask to stay with Marianne, but she thinks that he is saying he wants to leave town. They break up. This represents her failure of imagination and his failure of courage, but also suggests that independence is not an uncomplicated virtue. The solution is obvious, and she has something he needs. Why shouldn’t people give one another food, and money, and places to stay?