Sally Rooney’s renaissance: How ‘Normal People’ captures early adulthood

photo of three Sally Rooney novels

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Fall afternoons ensnared by the looming pressures of adulthood, majestic scenes of Ireland and heart-wrenching philosophical questions posed by those in their mid 20s could easily describe any of Sally Rooney’s novels. In her works, young artists introspectively question their merit, characters struggle to express their feelings and, in true Rooney fashion, there are no quotation marks to bookend her witty dialogue. Yet, both fervent readers and those who merely purchase fiction in airports can agree on one thing: Sally Rooney understands what it takes to write an astounding piece of literature. 

In recent years, the 30-year-old Irish novelist seems to have grasped the hearts of every 20-something questioning their place in the world. With only three novels in her bibliography — “Normal People,” “Conversations with Friends” and “Beautiful World, Where Are You” — Rooney quickly rose as a renowned figure in 21st century fiction, something that has only been exacerbated by millennials and Gen Z alike on social media. 

In the past year, an undeniable Rooney renaissance has swept the internet. TikTok users have utilized a niche community on the app known as “BookTok” to praise the relatability of Rooney’s prose. Similarly, BookTubers, Bookstagrammers and celebrities have continuously shared their devotion for the writer. 

But, considering the brevity of her work, how is it that Rooney has swiftly become this acclaimed literary sensation? Those who have engaged with her prose may be overtly aware of the intense feelings that her writing conjures, though it can be quite meticulous to pinpoint what it is exactly about her narratives that effortlessly grasp the attention of readers. 

This question can perhaps be answered by examining Rooney’s rare ability to capture what it truly feels like to be 20 years old. In each of her novels, the writer is willing to expose the gruesome truths of growing out of adolescence. Unafraid to shatter the romanticized, glowing image of youth that commonly protrudes works of fiction, Rooney portrays young adults with undeniable candor, something that sets her apart from a multitude of writers. In highlighting the perturbingly raw complexities of social pressure, mental health and romantic relationships in one’s 20s, Rooney consistently crafts narratives that embrace hardship, reflecting much of the experiences of her readership.

In particular, Rooney’s most popular work, “Normal People,” explores these concerns through depicting the lives of two teenagers, Marianne and Connell, who must navigate their budding relationship as they enter their early 20s. When the two first become involved romantically, the brazen social pressures of secondary school prohibit their public interaction. While this trope is relatively common in young adult fiction, “Normal People” is distinctive in its relatable, prolonged study of two complex identities that intertwine with one another, quickly entangling before growing apart. 

While one’s early 20s are commonly praised for being the prime time of life, Rooney identifies the ways in which this is not the case. One must dissect the intrinsic flaws embedded within long-standing relationships and, usually for the first time, being left alone with their own psyche without the distractions of youth.

With Connell’s character, Rooney highlights his qualms, identifying the ways in which attending university is not always a positively life-altering experience — it can be incredibly isolating and take a toll on one’s mental health. Leaving behind the people who molded the charming persona that guided him throughout his teenage years, Connell is left to his own devices at college where he must embrace autonomy over his own identity for the first time. In later revisiting his relationship with Marianne, Connell experiences a regression that most 20-somethings find themselves encountering — looking to friends from childhood in order to grasp onto elements of his past self. 

Rooney’s debut novel “Conversation with Friends” is similar to “Normal People” in this regard; the two books center on navigating life in one’s 20s and learning to express oneself with new acquaintances and old flames. Though each novel is intrinsically different in its narrative, Rooney maintains an interest in exploring the interior complexity of those settling into adulthood. 

In “Conversations with Friends,” this manifests in the life of the novel’s protagonist, Frances — a young poet bombarded by ex-lovers and newfound friends. Unable to express her vulnerability to others, Frances faces isolation and anxiety that infiltrates her internal monologue, immersing readers into the painfully morose world of a young artist. 

Through Rooney’s succinct yet effortlessly quippy writing style, she tightly weaves readers into Frances’ headspace, gaining direct access to the idiosyncrasies that comprise her being. Yet, simultaneously, readers must bear witness to the somber moments faced by every woman in their 20s. While this can be quite painful at times, this courage to detail moments of isolation with ease further identifies Rooney’s immeasurable talent.

A throughline of honesty and emotional authenticity persists in all of Rooney’s work, especially in her latest novel “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” As her literature adapts into successful television shows and her readership continues to grow, this element of Rooney’s fiction should certainly not be remiss. Rooney’s transparency is what connects readers to her prose, making them feel as if they really are engaging in “conversations with friends.”

Sarah Runyan covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].