The Fashion Magpie Magpie Book Club Sally Rooney Normal People

Magpie Book Club: Sally Rooney’s “Normal People.”

“Oh baby don’t you know that the
Time will do the talking
Years will do the walking
I’ll just find a comfy spot and wait it out.”

-Patty Griffin

One of my girlfriends recently suggested I listen to Patti Griffin’s debut 1996 album “Living with Ghosts.” I’d never heard of her and fell hard — she’s a less twang-y, more lyrical Dixie Chick, or a more country Sheryle Crow, and I love the heartbreak in her voice. (Thank you, W.!)

I especially loved her song “Time Will Do the Talking,” and though I sense she’s writing about achieving some kind of comeuppance or clarity in a strained relationship, I found myself thinking about the breadth of perspective she’s espousing more generally and wishing I’d heard it in my 20s, when I was in an incessant rush to “get to the next thing.”

Because I wish, in my 20s, I had spent less time worrying about getting married and more time drinking Mr. Magpie up in the lighthearted, boyish content of his youth. Had agonized less about calories and worn a bikini more often–because damn! I’ll never look better than I did then. Had embraced the meanderings of my early career instead of fretting over where I was headed and what people might think of me. Had worried less about the imagined howl of the wolves. Had called my friend E. more often, had driven out to see her more regularly when she still lived thirty minutes from me in Vienna, Virginia. Had trusted myself to put one foot in front of the other, make the best decisions I could, and let time do the talking.

The song also reminded me of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People,” my May Magpie book club pick, which I loved and would award 4.5 stars. The novel charts the relationship between Marianne and Connell over the course of many years: we meet them as high school classmates, when Connell’s mother cleans the house of Marianne’s much wealthier family, and follow them through the caprices of their teens and twenties. The book is about modern love and its (mis-)communications. I am principally drawn to her books (also loved Conversations with Friends) because of the gorgeous craft of her character portraiture. I have never met such round, complex characters in my life: they feel real, beyond fiction, as if they exist somewhere in the world and Rooney has only happened to eavesdrop upon them and afford us glimpses into their heartbreaks and hopefulnesses. There is something unforced, natural about the way she captures them. Whereas I find myself steeling against the all-too-common experience of a plot line or character that feels overly convenient or trite in much contemporary literature, Rooney seems to let her characters breathe, be. I love the way she shows us how characters feel rather than telling us. For example: “They couldn’t look at each other when they were laughing, they had to look into corners of the room, or at their feet.” Is there any better way to capture the feeling of flushed attraction and self-awareness at the dawn of a romantic relationship?!

I had the honor of hearing Rooney speak a few weeks ago in Brooklyn and she said that she is always drawn to “relationships in disequilibrium.” In the case of Normal People, Marianne and Connell have a distinctive class divide at the outset of the novel, and there are many interesting negotiations between popularity, social status, and financial well-being that color the book and are worth unpacking. But there are darker vulnerabilities here, too: Marianne’s abusive past prevents her from fully accepting Connell’s purer intentions, and, later, Connell’s grappling with the untimely death of a friend of his send him spiraling into depression. Both struggle with their mental health in ways that impede the promise of their romantic attachment to one another. In many ways, too, I feel as though Rooney’s novel is another evocation of Patti Griffin’s “Time Will Do the Talking” sentiment: we follow these two wounded birds as they navigate their early adulthoods and, given the stretch of time we follow them, have a sense that they will likely continue to fall away from another and reunite over time, and that only the march of years will give us the full picture of their meaning to one another.

Oh, it is aching and truthful writing, and I love its understated elegance.

Book Club Questions.

+Marianne often draws attention to the fact that she sees herself as an outsider, admitting things like, “She knew these were the kind of thoughts that made her different from other people in school, and weirder.” How did you read her and her self-ostracism?

+Related: what did you make of the title? Do you think the title is meant to be ironic?

+What did you make of the ending? How are we to interpret her relationship with Connell at the very ending?

+The book is explicit in its treatment of the sexuality of her characters. What did you make of this? Was it necessary, gratuitous, etc?

+There is a point in the book where we get a very academic take on literature: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they like to read about…” This jumped out to me. It’s written as an observation by Connell but seems to have broader implications for Rooney and her perspective on reading/writing. What did you think?

+Did you like the characters in this book? Why or why not?

+What did you make of the class divide between Connell and Marianne? Does it persist throughout the novel or is it more important at certain points in the story?

June Book Club Pick: Joan Didion’s South and West.

I have half a mind to suggest we discuss Educated because I found it one of the more confounding and upsetting books I’ve read in recent memory–not only because its subject matter is deeply disturbing but because I grappled deeply with its intent and the context for its publication. But. I already shared my core reactions to the novel here (please share your thoughts either in the comments on my Insta or below this post — dying to hear more about your reactions; I received so many polarizing responses via DM!) and am more inclined to just keep moving.

I’m instead going to suggest we read Joan Didion’s South and West, “two extended excerpts from her never-before-seen notebooks–writings that offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary writer.” After sharing a favorite quote of hers in a recent #weekendvibes post, I realized I’ve only ever read her two memoirs and need to own a fuller repertoire of her masterful work. South and West is Didion’s most recent publication and so I thought we’d start there.

If you’re looking for something lighter, I’m currently reading and deeply enjoying Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, which everyone else read and raved about like five years ago. It has a creative premise and the writing is more substantive than you might expect. Next up for me: this thriller, which came out just a few days ago, from “Liv Constantine,” the pen name for the two sisters who wrote one of my all-time favorite beach reads. I’m also a huge fan of Ruth Reichl (have read a few of her books), and her recently-published food memoir has gotten solid reviews, like much of her writing.

Post Scripts.

+A cute, well-priced, and well-reviewed gym bag. I’m determined to get back in shape after this baby by signing up at a gym, and will need allll the gear to motivate.

+Speaking of gym/athleisure wear, a girlfriend of mine was wearing this puff-sleeved Goop sweatshirt with these and I want it SO BADLY, but it is sold out in my size. Considering this or this as alternatives.

+LOVE this limited edition fire engine red lipstick.

+Super cute summer top for a pregnant or nursing mama — it’s in my cart and would look adorable with white skinnies and Chanel espadrilles.

+A reader pointed me in the direction of these woven mules and OMG. They’d go with everything in my closet this summer!

+Speaking of woven — check out this chic and affordable ceiling pendant.

+Love these feminine striped shorts with the big bow!

+Just added these to my Amazon cart for mini.

+What’s not to love about a striped maxi?!

10 Comments

  1. Hi Jen!
    Hi Jen!
    I was just thinking about Normal People again (lol, been wont to do that a lot ever since finishing it) and realized that The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides had a really similar vibe. There’s also the added bonus of one of the main characters being an English major researching her senior thesis, which all us fellow English majors can probably relate to!

    1. Oh interesting – I picked up Marriage Plot but don’t think I ever finished it a few years back! Might need to revisit. I know Eugenides has a lot of fans.

      You are so right, too — the motif of the English major is another element that drew me to Rooney 🙂

      xx

  2. i bought your suggested pippa holt embroidered mexican dress. it was hanging in my closet and my daughter fell in love with it. she often shops in my closet, just to warn you as mini gets older. What can a loving mother do? I gave it to her. So now i am yearning to buy another one. Thank you for a good recommendation. Beth

    1. Omg love this!! What a generous mom you are . I think you definitely need a second to replace the one your daughter has “borrowed.” Xxx

  3. Ahh! So happy you’re going to read South and West. It’s a fascinating look into Didion’s mind. And as somewhat of an unintentional “east coast elitist” (a NoVA upbringing followed by a West Point education), I was struck by her journey through the deep South. While I bristled at some of her descriptions—judgmental at best—I knew I’d probable feel the same way in many instances. The South section read a bit like an uncomfortable mirror.

    I also highly recommend the Netflix (?) documentary about her life if you have time!

    P.S. Loved Normal People even more than CWF.

    1. Yay!! Cannot wait to read this. Interesting point on her reactions to the South.

      So interesting on Rooney! I can’t figure out which I preferred more — they sort of bleed together in my mind. Rooney mentioned this during her interview, actually: that she wrote the books pretty much contemporaneously and kind of regrets that, as there is substantial overlap in content, setting, characters.

      xxx

  4. I’m glad I’m not the only one would found Educated to be really off-putting. The whole time I was reading it, I felt like there should have been a blinking red sign that said TOO SOON at the top of every page. This woman has barely begun to process what happened to her. I think this could have been a really powerful book if it had been written 30 years removed, not a mere handful of years removed. I also worry about the publisher’s intent- the shock value of this book is clearly sky-high, and I’m almost certain that was the impetus behind publishing it. They knew it would fly off the shelves. Not that the author doesn’t deserve to be successful, of course. But at what cost?

    1. Hi Anna – I totally agree with this assessment. I wrote something similar on Instagram the other day, and there was an interesting exchange I had with a fellow Magpie reader who had a very different perspective; she felt that the narrative sparked some urgent conversations/awarenesses that made the story worth telling:

      https://www.instagram.com/p/BxH_356B5_H/

      Interesting food for thought. I still wind up in the same space as you do as I’ve digested this book in the last week or two since finishing it. I think you’re right about “TOO SOON.” I feel deeply for the author but it was almost sadistic to expect her to write something on the heels of such recent trauma.

      xxx

  5. Oooh, I cannot wait to dive into Normal People! I picked it up on Independent Bookstore Day, but I need to finish Conversations with Friends first. Also: I’ve had South and West in my tsundoku pile since its publication (oops) but haven’t gotten around to reading it, so perhaps I will join you in reading it this month!

    If you’re looking to expand your Didion reading list, may I suggest the compilation We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live? Many of her well-known nonfiction collections are included, and I’ve passed many an enjoyable hour skipping around and reading essays. Love.

    That Goop sweatshirt … yes! Love it. xx

    1. Great recommendations — thank you! I always love a collection of essays…one thing that drew me to “South and West” is that (as you likely know) they are excerpts from journals she kept. Such a novel form!

      xx

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