by Sally Rooney,
Published by Hogarth Press (2019)
This book was recommended to me by a friend who told me she stayed up past her bedtime to finish the book once she started. To me, that’s always a good sign: a story that keeps you gripped to make you ward off sleep is one I’m going to be curious about more often than not. Thus began my adventure with Sally Rooney. I didn’t take a break while reading the book, and my reading of the book was on one of my more productive reading days. However, what kept me going was the hope that it would get better (and better). Unfortunately, while the book was good, I felt the story and the characters – particularly supporting character arcs remained unexplored, making this a lukewarm 3.5-star book for me.
Quite straightforward. The story follows two teenagers, Marianne and Connell through their final years in adolescence and into early adulthood. They study at the same school in County Sligo and move together to Trinity College Dublin. Connell is popular at high school, and begins a relationship with unpopular Marianne, whose mother employs his mother as a cleaner. He keeps his relationship with her a secret. At Trinity College Dublin, however, the roles are reversed, as Marianne blossoms at University, while Connell struggles to fit in. The book revolves around their everchanging dynamic over the years, examining what bonds them together and what pulls them apart.
Fiction books that rely on characters rather than worlds, or dialogue, need to be able to have firm character arcs: motives, flaws, strengths, that help them blossom through the book. However, a critical aspect of this is their relatability, which, for me, stems out of their interactions with other characters. Where media pieces set themselves up in the context/focus of a singular relationship (think, Titanic), I enjoy them only when I find myself caring about both characters equally. It’s what upset me at the climax of Titanic. Caring about both characters equally means giving them equal footing throughout the book, and allowing them both to play out without remaining in each others’ shadow. More crucially, their interactions need to be real – and not pretense. Rooney accomplishes this by giving both Marianne and Connell strong introductions, and right off the bat, you begin to care about the fate of both characters. As they get to know one another, you begin wondering where their relationship will go. For a book like this, that is particularly helpful, and I enjoyed the fact that I cared about them so much.
However, simultaneously, I was disturbed by the manner in which they romanticized their difficulties. As things progress, there seem to be explanations for some bizarre ways both characters respond to circumstances – but no real discussion of those explanations (which are traumas).
Sally Rooney writes beautifully. Her sentences and descriptions are vivid, and in several places, lyrical, like poetry. It’s part of why I kept reading the book. It suited the ending she had set up – which was cheesy and wonderful for the kind of writing she executes. However, it didn’t “move” me in the way that several similar pieces have previously. I wish there was more exploration of secondary characters – their mothers included, which I feel would have added depth to the book.
I completed the book and was left wondering at all the things that could have been. This was, for me, a good, quick, not-so-immersive read.