I gobbled up this book club read in one go, in about three hours on a lazy Sunday morning. I’m generally a fast reader, but it’s a real testament to Sally Rooney’s clear prose and the irresistible pull of her story about a complicated on-and-off relationship between two young people.
Marianne and Connell, both smart and sensitive teenagers, go to the same school in Sligo in the northwest of Ireland. Marianne comes from a wealthy family and lives in a posh mansion, but is a despised social outcast at school; Connell’s mother is a cleaner at Marianne’s house while he’s a popular and well-liked boy, good at sports. Outside school, Connell comes into regular contact with Marianne when he picks up his mother from work, and soon the two begin a hesitant relationship, which Connell keeps a secret for fear that Marianne’s undesirable social status is transferred onto him by association. Marianne, who after years of emotional abuse from her own family believes that there’s something wrong with her and that she’s not fit to be loved by anyone, accepts the secrecy as her lot.
Fast-forward to Trinity College in Dublin, and the roles are reversed: Marianne with her privileged background blossoms into a swan and finds her social footing with the group who appreciate her beauty, intelligence and eccentricity, while working-class Connell struggles to make friends and fit in. Their rekindled relationship meanwhile zigzags from friendship to sexual encounters to estrangement. Despite their deep and powerful connection and the influence they have on each other’s lives, Marianne and Connell’s flaws and insecurities, not to mention some truly frustrating yet realistic moments of miscommunication, don’t make it easy.
The twists and turns of this on-again, off-again love affair could have been really trite and soapy, but the top-notch, intelligent writing makes it an absorbing and addictive read. The innermost thoughts and desires of these two damaged characters, the intricacies of their relationship, and the rocky road from adolescence to adulthood are sharply observed by Rooney, whose voice as a writer is cool, detached almost, but compassionate. There’s a strong sense of class difference between the two lovers and how, as the novel puts it, some people “just move through the world in a different way.” She also employs a neat trick of starting each new chapter with a time stamp like “One Month Later”, which is a simple but effective way of creating suspense as you can’t wait to find out what happened in the characters’ lives in between.
The only real shortcoming of the book is that, outside of Marianne and Connell’s central dynamic, almost everyone else is fairly two-dimensional. Connell’s kind-hearted mother Lorraine is perhaps the novel’s only unambiguously likeable character who injects some real warmth into the story, but the couple’s schoolmates and their social circle at the college are sketchy at best. Connell’s good and steady (read: boring) girlfriend and Marianne’s terrible boyfriends (including one monstrous sadist) are likewise flat. This didn’t detract from my enjoyment too much though, and perhaps the sheer intensity of the pair’s all-consuming connection inevitably doesn’t leave much room for anyone else.