The Art of Romance

The Art of Romance

The novel can do so many things, which may be why people love to decree what it ought to do: stick to realism, wrestle with Big Ideas, break with narrative customs (or not be so experimental), or try to be less like fiction and more like something else—journalism, say, or a diary. All of this intellectual sauce has been ladled so thickly over the novel that it’s difficult to make out the shape of its much less grandiose origin, the thing the novel has always done and does better than any other medium on Earth: tell a story about how people decide whom to love and what they do about it. The eternal appeal of this foundation explains why Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are as much a pleasure to read now as they were 150 years ago.

About halfway through Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, I realized I was enjoying the book in almost exactly the same way—fully absorbed, gobbling it down in long, lolling sessions on the sofa—that I’d savored a Trollope novel I read a few months ago. Normal Peopledescribes how Marianne, a teenager living in a provincial Irish town, becomes involved with Connell, the son of the woman who cleans her family’s house. Despite the differences in their families’ economic status, he’s popular at school and she is not. He’s a soccer player and handsome, both qualities alluring enough to obscure the fact that he’s bookish and quiet: “There was never any need to introduce himself or create impressions about his personality,” Connell thinks, looking back on this period of his life. “If anything, his personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others, rather than anything he individually did or produced.” Marianne, on the other hand, “exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels.”

Rooney’s first novel, Conversations With Friends, had, as its central character, a bisexual woman in her 20s who has an affair with an older, married man, much of which is facilitated by text messaging and the internet. As a result, Rooney was heralded as the bard of millennial fiction, a crafter of “mild and tender portraits of Irish college students in the recent present,” and Conversations With Friends a “new kind of adultery novel.” With Normal People, which is set during a four-year period in the early 2010s, Rooney avoids any element that would suggest the bleeding edge of the present moment. Neither Connell nor Marianne seems to have any interest in social media, and both are very standard-issue heterosexual. As with the characters in Conversations, their relationship takes place in a society ostensibly without restrictions and prohibitions, but actually governed by forces almost as implacable as the elaborate Victorian mores in that Trollope novel. Connell and Marianne are not free, and Normal People becomes a tender, bruised meditation on how two people can keep miring themselves in misery even when happiness is within their reach.

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