A Love Story | Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Normal People,
by Sally Rooney,
Published by Hogarth Press (2019)
Rating: 
***

Introduction

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.

Plot

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.

The Relationship

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).

The Writing

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.

Conclusion

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.

A Life, Lived | Stoner, by John Williams

Introduction 

My weekend has been filled with reading and books, which is just the weekend I needed to recover for the week that lies ahead. On Friday, I spent a couple of hours on Goodreads, trying to figure out the stuff I wanted to explore and get through by the time Sunday night rolled around. Stoner was a fresh find, an indirect find, so to speak. I saw a book about John Williams’ life – a book that described itself as an essay about why Stoner was the perfect novel, and I was intrigued. I’ve only ever heard of the name John Williams in the context of film scores, so to hear that there was this celebrated novelist I knew nothing about who seemed to have a cult-like following for this “perfect” book, I had to read it. Thus it was that I sat on my desk last evening after a scrumptious meal and I made a new friend: William Stoner.

Also, no, the book is not about weed.

Plot Summary

John Williams navigates you through the life of William Stoner, a lifelong academic and a Professor of English at the University of Missouri. You’re introduced to Stoner posthumously in the first chapter – an introduction that lays down clear benchmarks for the kind of expectations you should have from the book. Williams tells you in no uncertain terms that Stoner was an ordinary man, who had an ordinary career – who did nothing extraordinary. Over the course of subsequent chapters you learn about Stoner’s upbringing on a farm, and you’re transported through the different phases of his life and the different decisions he takes – in finding love, in working on English Literature, in understanding the impact of war. It’s really an unremarkable plot. Quite simply put: it’s one man’s journey through life.

The writing, however, is incredible.

Characters

It’s pretty evident from everything I’ve said above that the character: Stoner, is central to the entire plot. He drives it forward, slows it down, and brings it to a close. Some books which place a singular character at their center, or a singular perspective at the forefront struggle because they don’t establish the character’s voice early on. As a result, expectations are wayward. Williams does this remarkably well.

First, he stays away from writing in the first person at any point. The entire book is told in third person, giving the author more control over the kind of observations he is able to fit in about Stoner’s life – about Stoner’s temperament, for example.

Second, Stoner is set up very, very early on in the book.

You can tell that he’s in for a life of hard work and challenge. This isn’t exclusively because of the description of his farm-upbringing. Williams also achieves this end by labouring through descriptions of Stoner’s entire thought process. When, early on, Stoner is faced with the decision of going to school or continuing to stay on the farm – Williams doesn’t cut to the chase and reach the outcome (Stoner goes to University). Instead, Williams explains everything that terrifies Stoner, what excites him – and why he ends up acceding to his fathers’ pushes. For me, as a reader, it helped me understand Stoner’s motivations, but it also laid out how much thought (sometimes fruitless) the character put into everything he did. Thinking is hard work – and setting up a character who ponders deeply about everything, who doesn’t fully comprehend or rely on intuition early on in the book sets him (and you, the reader) up for everything that you’re going to see.

Third, supporting characters are eased into the story in small batches. Williams makes it clear that the focus is never supposed to be away from Stoner. Even when the scenery changes – like when Stoner moves to University, or the times change – like when World War I breaks out, Williams doesn’t introduce more than 2 characters into Stoner’s life arc. This clarity of writing allows each individual’s character arc to develop fully (only one character is written out early – killed in action), but more crucially, it allows Williams to lay out, slowly, Stoner’s dynamic and interaction with each person. That enables them to be more organically involved in Stoner’s life. This is best illustrated not through Edith, but through Gordon Finch. Finch is introduced as a friend. Stoner and Finch get on really well – exchanging observations about University life that you’d only ever exchange with your closest peers. Finch disappears, enlisting for the war, and returns in an administrative capacity more senior to Stoner. However, their rapport doesn’t change – and lasts right through to the end. Now, Finch was introduced with another character, Masters (the character who dies young). In my view, settling on a small group reflects the reality of the life of an academic. More central to the argument I was making though, is the fact that it allows for the development of more meaningful interactions with these characters – which keeps the spotlight on Stoner. As the reader, you’re rarely caught onto picking a favourite character: you’re firmly on Stoner’s side, interested solely in the kind of relationship and impact each character will have on his life.

Conflict

After I read the book, I went on to read a few essays I mentioned earlier – about why Stoner was the perfect novel, and they all point to the way conflict is explored. Each one of them highlighted how conflict was introduced at exactly when it needed to be in Stoner’s arc.

While I agree with that, I think some nuance exists in the kind of conflicts introduced. There are the big conflicts: the one with Lomax, the affair Stoner has and the conflict with Edith, the conflict when he tells his parents about continuing on with his studies in English Literature. However, conflict remains a central theme throughout the book – one that shouldn’t be ignored. Williams’ success doesn’t lie exclusively in the fact that he is able to introduce these big conflicts at the right time.

To me, a large portion of that success is owed to the lucidity of his writing of an internal monologue and the internal conflict that Stoner faces almost on a daily basis. We’ve explored this in the above section – on how this helps set up Stoner’s character. Here, what I’d like to concentrate on is the role of this internal monologue in those bigger conflict arcs.

I shall illustrate this through the conflict with Lomax (the conflict with Edith has too many layers and will give away too much of the book). Professor Lomax is another faculty in the English department who Stoner has several scuffles with, climaxing in the big scuffle regarding whether a particular graduate/doctoral student should receive passing marks in his oral examination. Now, while this entire scuffle could have been projected through the single dimension of being an indirect power struggle in the department between Lomax and Stoner, a large amount of the conflict’s introduction takes place through the internal monologue.

Stoner first notices this student when he sits for a graduate seminar Stoner teaches – and Williams elaborates Stoner’s thoughts at the start. In fact, Williams creates a narrative of doubt through every interaction that Stoner has with the graduate student – which culminates the introduction of the conflict with Lomax. Without these deliberate portions of the narrative devoted to exploring Stoner’s internal dilemma about how the student in question has been admitted, the larger conflict loses value. More importantly, what Williams is able to achieve is the opportunity to introduce a counter-narrative and a counter-characterization that is equally powerful by allowing Lomax to replay the entire monologue from a different perspective.

It is a phenomenal lesson in storytelling.

Concluding Remarks

I recognize that a large part of my analysis may not make sense without a reading of the book. Hence, please read the book. It is short and well worth any time you may have. The Guardian wrote about how the book had a ‘sad tone’, and how Williams himself was confused at why people thought Stoner led a sad life. I have to agree. There is a sadness to Stoner, but there is also joy – in equal part. Remember, Stoner’s life is ordinary. It is relatable. Therein lies it’s power.

I loved the book. As someone contemplating a career in the academy, this was just a beautifully told tale of someone determined to teach, and to love, to the best of his capabilities – while making mistakes along the way. A life truly lived. Another great book I’ve read in 2020, earning ***** (5 stars).

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo | Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Published by Atria Books (2017)
Rating: ***** 

This is a fast book. This does not mean it’s a short read – the page count is 388 (hardcopy) and 304 (softcopy). It’s just an incredibly fast-paced book. Before reading the book, I saw a friend get consumed in it, and she described the writing as “incredibly engaging”, amongst other adjectives. 300-odd pages later, I do not disagree one bit. This is, far and away, one of the best pieces of fiction writing I have read.

The plot, at first glance, doesn’t spark any emotional reaction. It’s about an ageing former starlet, Evelyn Hugo, who, after years of being reticent with the media, decides to grant Vivant magazine an interview – specifically in the context of some dresses she’s auctioning off for charity. Her only condition is that Monique Grant, a relative unknown, is the reporter who interviews her. A few pages later, and Hugo reveals her ulterior motive in inviting Grant to her home – to give Grant the exclusive tell-all and the rights to publish an authorized biography once Hugo dies. What transpires is this narration of Hugo’s life, leading up to the present day. That, however, is barely scratching the surface of it. Through the recount, we explore all the romantic relationships Hugo has had, the headlines she dominated during her heydey, and, in bursts, Monique’s present-day life. Throughout, there’s a sense of foreshadowing that the two women are connected somehow, a reveal which marks a fitting conclusion to the book.

I’m going to review this systematically since a lot of it is very, very fresh in my memory at the moment.

First, the characters. Since a large part of the narration happens in a setting that is the late 60’s/70’s, it’s pretty amazing that Reid weaves in such large amounts of representation into the book, in terms of the communities across the sexuality spectrum that she is able to describe. What’s also phenomenal is the way she introduces and describes her characters. Every character is relevant, and Hugo, the protagonist, manages to have meaningful interactions with each of them – which plays a huge role in plot development, but also in terms of your understanding of context. Moreover, the characters are not one-dimensional. It’s very difficult to use one adjective to describe them, for example. Each character is layered, and their contribution to Hugo’s life is well-explained, in terms of how they affect her thinking, and what her emotions are.

A special paragraph is needed to talk about the two protagonists, if you will. Evelyn and Monique, the two characters whose interactions shape the entire plot are really different from each other. There is a gap both in economic stature and in confidence – a distinction Reid draws within the first 50 pages itself. It is this distinction that enables both ladies to learn from each other. While Evelyn takes on more of a mentor role, it becomes clear that at latter parts of the book, especially towards its conclusion – there are things that she’s picked up from how Monique has responded to the tell-all. Monique’s growth through the story is phenomenal. If Evelyn is the one who is being reflective and assessing her life, Monique learns how to change her life – in terms of being able to put herself and her emotions before others. That emotional growth and maturity is well-traced, and not knee-jerk. Reid’s exposition of Monique’s life is measured and does not feel out of place – which deserves special praise.

Second, the treatment of sexuality, and representation.  I’ve already spoken about how diverse the characters are. What demands more attention, however, is how well she’s able to treat sexuality in the context she sets out. There are several things about an individual’s identity and sexuality that are incredibly confusing to people today – in terms of people exploring their sexualities, or identifying a particular way. It sparks off a lot of conversation – and this is despite our generation being lucky enough to have a lot of information and lesser prejudice than earlier. Reid is able to trace what it would have been like in the late 1900’s, and she’s able to do this in two parts.

The first, is pre-Stonewall, where the story charts the sexuality of several characters and their attempts to keep it secret and conform to the heteronormative expectation that society has for them. There’s also a specific discussion in this time period about bisexuality and it’s misunderstanding – something that stood out in this book. Without spoiling too much, it’s interesting to see that members of the homosexual community themselves didn’t fully understand what being bisexual meant. This is well documented today, but the fact that Reid chooses to give a voice to a bisexual character, engage with the social conflicts the character faces is worth a lot of praise. The second time period the book engages with sexuality in is post-Stonewall, which is a little more liberal, but involves conversations that lead to definitive decisions about coming out.

Finally, Reid deserves congratulations for her construction of family and friendship. If anything, there is a lot of pain in this book. There’s a lot of love, a lot of loss, a bunch of conflict around identity, and a lot of tabloid gossip. Through the recount, Hugo builds up what her friendships did to her, and then descends into a tale of her family. Her relationship with her daughter is so profound and the reactions so natural that you’re on edge to find out how the daughter will grow up. Her narration of “family” breaks away from a lot of traditional notions, and her detailing of the platonic/romantic divide in Hugo’s life leaves you wondering how much of romance today is a socially constructed expectation. Atleast, I was. It makes you ponder about how romantic relationships are treated in society as automatically being a step-up from a platonic one, and how untrue that premise is in reality. There’s one quote about intimacy that particularly stands out to me – in terms of how, more than anything, it’s the ability to be true with someone.

What is touching is her development of Monique’s arc and Monique’s family, and I think the relationship of mother and daughter there is another highlight. Monique’s mother is inserted into the book in just the right places, something I absolutely adored.

I would only dock points for the fact that the book is not slightly longer, for I think the ending (the last 30 pages) were extremely rushed. There is a certain power to the voices, the characters, and the description that Reid is able to weave, one that will linger in my memory for a while. All in all, a fantastic read, well worth the time and investment.