This is an in-depth portrayal of the evolving relationship in the four life-changing years from leaving school to starting on a career of two young people in present-day Ireland. It is perhaps inspired by George Eliot’s observation, quoted at the outset, and no doubted garbled here into plain English, on the profound and unexpected way in which one personality may influence another.
The bright but troubled product of a well-off yet dysfunctional family, Marianne is a loner and misfit at secondary school, continually provoking rejection and bullying by her peers. The one exception is Connell whom she can meet in a neutral setting outside school because his mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Supported by his poor but well-balanced and tolerant single mother Lorraine, the charming, athletic and academic high-flier Connell is the complete opposite of Marianne in being very popular, a situation he is afraid of sacrificing by the admission that he not only likes her but they are in a sexual relationship. In his immaturity he behaves callously, despite the sensitivity which feeds his love of English and leads Marianne to encourage him to apply to study literature at Trinity, her university choice.
Once at somewhat exclusive middle-class Trinity, the tables are turned: with the chance of a clean slate, it is Marianne’s turn to become accepted and sought after, whereas the working-class Connell feels out of his depth, judged by his thick regional accent and cheap, unfashionable clothes. Yet through indications of her lack of self-esteem and sexual masochism in her relations with men, the degree to which Marianne has been physically and mentally abused is revealed: although details remain sketchy as to her dead father, they are painfully clear as regards her cold mother, and brutal, manipulative brother, both themselves the victims of abuse, but not portrayed with any sympathy like Marianne. Throughout, she and Connell may no longer be lovers but share some deep bond, yet not always with complete openness and self-knowledge. Though highly intelligent and perceptive, immaturity and lack of experience inevitably plunge them into frequent uncertainty and confusion, unable to express their complex, shifting emotions.
This is an insightful and often moving page turner, with the tension of knowing that matters could end in tragedy. Born in 1991, Sally Rooney has the advantage of being close enough to her school years to write with authenticity about the pressure to conform and bullying aggravated by social media. She gets inside the head of the two main characters to create a convincing stream of the changing and conflicting emotions of being on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood.
It may well be that this novel has been over-hyped, although I would not criticise the simple style which is probably harder to write than it seems and serves to convey the characters’ thoughts more effectively than many a self-regarding literary turn of phrase. I agree that apart from Marianne and Connell, the characters are mostly two-dimensional caricatures, with no indication of their inner motivations and thoughts. The main flaw for me is that periods of mental illness, which figure strongly in the book, seem to be slipped into, or recovered from rather too abruptly, with insufficient development of the situation. However, I was satisfied by the ending which seemed a well-chosen point for conclusion, leaving it open to the reader to decide what happens next in their lives. This is not a depressing read for there are moments of humour despite the emotional intensity.