Sally Rooney’s new novel, Normal People, was recently featured in a Vanity Fair spread of “this season’s best new books and the must-have bags to stash them in.” In the picture, it leans confidingly against a Mansur Gavriel tote bag in a pleasing highlighter yellow (price: $595).
The person who owns that combination of things would be rich, tasteful, and smart, the kind of person who has a well-paying job (creative director? brand consultant?) that still leaves her time to read novels and carry a whimsically yellow purse to lunch with friends, who would have all also read and liked Normal People.
Rooney is a self-described Marxist, and I suspect that she would enjoy Vanity Fair’s neat illustration of a point she makes in Normal People about the way books can function as cultural currency. “It was culture as class performance,” thinks a character at a reading, “literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”
Though Rooney’s characters have scalding contempt for capitalism and its trappings, it’s easy to see how Normal People could have snuck into the handbag slideshow. Politics in Rooney’s novel are often ambient rather than explicit, submerged under the surface of a love story about, as Rooney writes, “two people who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone,” Marianne and Connell, who spend four years alternately pursuing and withdrawing from each other.
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?
Eventually they come into a kind of mutual dependence, something fundamentally at odds with the mainstream, if hazy, acceptance of independence as an obvious good (and, particularly, a feminist good). The message of the current moment can often seem to be: Limit your emotional labor; be your own best advocate; don’t let your relationships compromise autonomy or empowerment. “How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary,” Marianne thinks. “No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”
Rooney allows Connell to come to Marianne’s rescue when she is threatened by angry or violent men, not once but three times: when she is groped in a nightclub, bullied by her boyfriend (the one whose dad caused the financial crisis), and, finally, abused by her brother. A novel espousing independence as a straightforward virtue might have made her come to her own rescue. Connell isn’t helping her as an archetypical knight, but he is still a man and aware of the power this confers him in particular circumstances. The book suggests that people can use their advantages for one another—that personal qualities, abilities, status, and other advantages can act like wealth or goods in a socialist society, for common benefit. This extends far outside of gender, of course: Though Marianne initially fails to see that Connell needs a place to stay, she offers him other things, including social protection and money when he’s been mugged. From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.
In some ways, Normal People feels like an extension of Rooney’s flashier first novel, Conversations With Friends, which follows two college students who form a fraught relationship with an older couple. Frances and her best friend/ex-girlfriend Bobbi have long, drily funny and unresolved text and IM conversations about love and capitalism. Here’s an oft-quoted passage:
Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon
Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system
Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness
Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality
Bobbi: and yet also it’s subservient and facilitatory
me: capitalism harnesses “love” for profit
me: love is the discursive practice and unpaid labor is the effect
me: but I mean, I get that, I’m anti love as such
Bobbi: that’s vapid frances
It’s meant to be funny, and it is, but it also gestures at an actual problem they see. Shouldn’t you give away your love and care for free? But doesn’t capitalism depend on and exploit that instinct? Bobbi and Frances don’t figure it out. Toward the end of Conversations With Friends, after a falling out, Frances emails Bobbi: “Is it possible we could develop an alternative model of loving each other?” The novel ends not long after.
Normal People answers the question posed in Conversations With Friends. It suggests that despite everything, despite the helplessness that Rooney’s characters feel in the face of global capitalism, and class differences, and the judgments of others, radical politics can work on a small scale and are worth pursuing even if the world’s broader inequalities feel both inevitable and unsolvable. Normal People proposes that a merciful and just country can still exist, even if only in the space between friends.