With the critical and popular success of her two millennial novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), Irish author Sally Rooney has been compared to an impressive handful of literary predecessors. For example, her editor has “hailed” her as “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” (Clark, Stanford, Sucholdolski), most likely for her laserlike focus on the frailties and foibles of young adults. In addition, her writing has been described as reminiscent of Jane Austen “in the way that [Normal People’s] characters miscommunicate and misinterpret each other’s feelings over and over again until readers want to reach into the pages and throttle them into a resolution” (Sucholdolski). And a third link to literary posterity, this time involving a living, active Pulitzer Prize winner longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, was identified by Sophie White in her review of Normal People for the Independent. Commenting on Rooney’s attention to the small gestures of her characters, White states: “Her care over particulars give [sic] a striking immediacy to every page, calling to mind the fine and exquisite detail of an Anne Tyler scene.”
Drawing on gender and feminist theory (in particular the focus on women’s journey to self-fulfillment as articulated by Mary Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule in Women’s Ways of Knowing) as well as the basic tenets of youth culture study, this paper examines the striking parallels and common threads discernible in the writings of Sally Rooney and Anne Tyler. Its focus is on two novels whose subject matter and plot lines are very closely matched: Rooney’s Normal People and Tyler’s A Slipping-Down Life (1970). Despite the temporal, geographic, economic, technological, and intellectual divides that separate the characters in these novels, both narratives cover the same plot and thematic ground: first love for two heterosexual teenage couples, stories that simultaneously chronicle young women’s searches for self-actualization alongside young men’s struggles with gender-based societal expectations. Of particular significance is the finding that despite the half century that separates these stories, their respective developments and dénouements share multiple surprising similarities.
Gendered and Generational Interpretive Frameworks
First published nearly 35 years ago, Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind remains an essential feminist text. For my 1999 analysis of women’s figurative voices in the novels of Robert Penn Warren, I synthesized the “awareness-creating perspectives” women experience as outlined by Belenky and colleagues:
From the initial stance of silence, women first acquire “received knowledge,” that is, information given to women by those in authority, often a predominantly male group. The next step in the acquisition and development of knowledge is “subjective knowing,” or “the move away from silence and an externally oriented perspective on knowledge and truth . . . [to] a new conception of truth as personal, private, and subjectively known or intuitive”. . . . Subjective knowing is superseded by ‘procedural knowing,’ the stage at which women utilize critical thinking skills to arrive at correct decisions. The most advanced level of knowledge, “constructed knowing,” is the point at which women “integrate knowledge that they felt intuitively was personally important with knowledge they had learned from others”; it involves “weaving together the strands of rational and emotive thought and of integrating objective and subjective knowing.” (10)
It can be argued that both Evie Decker of A Slipping Down Life and Marianne Sheridan of Normal People transition from silence to advanced stages of knowledge as their respective stories unfold, albeit with varying degrees of success and durability. Sporadically throughout these works, both heroines encounter situations where they are subject to both Judith Butler’s suggested assessment of the female body as involuntarily passive in that it is “shaped by political forces . . . in keeping that body bound and constricted by the markers of sex” (465), as well as Hélène Cixous’s declaration of liberation, that “girls and their ‘ill-mannered’ bodies . . . intact unto themselves . . . are . . . ever seething underneath!” (417). Evie’s and Marianne’s respective male co-protagonists, Bertram “Drumstrings” Casey and Connell Waldron, are not immune from the pressures of traditional and arguably stereotypical expectations. As Lois Tyson states, “Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive” (85), and in both novels it becomes apparent that on occasion both of these young men fall short in meeting this gender-based criteria.
The flaws and foibles exhibited by this quartet of characters are often manifested by actions readers may find totally surprising and questionable, but these can be explained in large part by the findings of scholars in the field of “youth studies.” In their comprehensive compendium identifying and explaining the issues within this subfield of sociological study, Nancy Lesko and Susan Talburt offer explanations that assist in making the unexpected, often off-putting, and arguably quirky actions of Tyler’s and Rooney’s characters understandable. Labeling youth as “transitional,” Lesko and Talburt state, “As subjects-in-process, [youth] must acquire knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will enable them to function in society. The meanings of youth’s transitions are uncertain and dangerous, subject to constant rewriting, a construction that makes youth a particularly malleable category, neither this nor that, but always in-between, becoming” (2). Rooney’s and Tyler’s narratives grant readers the opportunity to observe such “rewriting” first-hand. A Slipping Down Life and Normal People are worthy of comparative study in that they not only provide testimony to the findings of scholars of gender and youth studies but also share a timelessness with regard to their treatment of their subject matter. Written nearly one half-century apart, and representing different geographic, technological, and sexual conditions, A Slipping-Down Life and Normal People convey convincingly the message that regardless of temporal, physical, or societal backdrop, one can be certain about the uncertainty of youth—an uncertainty that transcends the passage of time and has readers turning the pages in anticipation of what will happen next.
The Common Bonds Between Rooney and Tyler
At first, it may seem to readers of both Rooney and Tyler that the aforementioned precision in prose stands as their sole similarity—and that in all other literary assessment criteria, they differ. For example, Tyler and Rooney are polar opposites regarding addressing global issues. Rooney injects socioeconomic and political elements into the dialogues, bookshelves, and bedrooms of her characters, while Tyler went on record in a 1977 interview to state that she brings “no world view” to her narratives (Gerstenberger 139), although the events of September 11th, 2001 play a role in the plot of her 2006 novel Digging to America. In addition, Rooney’s works include explicit language and scenes of sex and violence that are arguably “R-rated” by U.S. standards while Tyler rarely moves beyond PG territory in any of these categories. But alongside these differences, common threads outside the confines of plot and character are discernable in the writings of these two authors.
The most apparent parallels are location-, content-, and structure-based, with Tyler and Rooney selecting and adorning their respective settings in like fashion. With the exception of her first three published novels, which take place in North Carolina, Tyler’s works are set in Baltimore, Maryland with recurring references to Roland Park, a suburb that readers outside of that state are not likely to be familiar with. Similarly, Rooney’s plots are steeped in the geography and culture of Ireland, to the point that a 2019 article by Clare McCarthy in the Irish Post and a 2020 BBC video with commentary from Larissa Kennelly provide near-essential glossaries of terms to accompany the reading of Normal People. Rooney mentions Carricklea, Monkstown, The Liberties, and the Hugh Lane in her novels, locales not likely to strike familiar chords with those who have never been to Ireland.
Both writers are also distinctive in providing specific musical soundtracks for their prose, identifying actual recordings that play in the background while characters interact. For example, readers learn in Back When We Were Grownups (2001) that when Rebecca Holmes first met her future husband Joe Davitch, Don Cherry’s 1955 recording of the ballad “Band of Gold” was playing on the stereo in the background. This is but one instance of a specific song referenced in a Tyler work; the second appendix to Robert Croft’s An Anne Tyler Companion provides a comprehensive list of songs mentioned in her novels through the mid- to late-1990s (281-85). And in Normal People, when protagonist Marianne Sheridan ventures out to the bar as one of the school dance “committee girls,” her friend Karen encourages her to get out on the floor and dance to the “Kanye West song playing, the one with the Curtis Mayfield sample” (39). Marianne and her fellow committee members engage here in an activity identified by music scholar Christopher Small as “musicking” (Lesko and Talburt 219). Considered a youth cultural phenomenon (but arguably accessible to humans of all ages), to “music,” as defined by Small, “is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance . . . or by dancing” (qtd. in Lesko and Talburt 220). Described as the “shared social experience of music” (220), “Musicking” helps to dissolve the traditionally hard and fast division between transmission and reception, or performing and listening, or, most importantly, production and consumption” (221). Musicking figures prominently in the plots of both Rooney’s and Tyler’s novels, including those under discussion here. In Normal People, Connell robs Marianne of a chance to “music” by asking someone else to The Debs senior dance. Conversely, in A Slipping-Down Life, Drumstrings opens the door of opportunity for Evie to “music” when she accepts the role of front-row fan at his performances.
For both authors, houses play a symbolic role in character definition and identity. For example, in Tyler’s Ladder of Years (1995), lead character Cordelia (as in King Lear) Felson Grinstead becomes one with her girlhood home, continuing to reside in it once she marries: “Even after the wedding she had not moved away but simply installed her husband among her sweet-sixteen bedroom furniture.” In this novel, which essentially chronicles Cordelia’s road to self-sufficiency, the aforementioned domicile receives a much needed “facelift” that parallels Cordelia’s growth: “Just as the house in Roland Park is undergoing renovation after years of stagnancy, Delia undergoes a makeover of liberation and self-direction” (Donohue, “Ladder of Years”). And two domiciles in Rooney’s Normal People carry symbolic significance relative to Marianne. Her family residence, described by Rooney as a “white mansion” (2), could be interpreted as emblematic of her soon-to-be-shed virginity. More significant meaning may be carried by the “ghost estate, Mountain View” (34), the unsold, abandoned “big foot” home which has become a clandestine teen hangout. The fact that Marianne “had been vaguely aware of some construction on the land behind the school, but . . . didn’t know there was a housing estate there” echoes her lack of connection with her fellow students, both on- and off-campus (34), an example of which comes to light at a soccer game, where “[e]veryone other than Marianne seemed to know the school chants off by heart” (10)—an incident demonstrating Marianne’s state of silence. Symbolic of the gaping interpersonal voids in her family circle, manifested by her troubled relationships with her mother Denise and older brother Alan, are the “[f]our bedrooms. . . . Just lying empty” on the second floor of the vacant house (36). And her comment to her newly-acquired boyfriend Connell Waldron regarding the “[p]retty sordid” condition of the interior of the building foreshadows the dark thoughts Marianne will share and act upon in the course of the novel (35).
However, the parallels in plot, theme, and character development remain the most intriguing and striking narrative bonds between the two authors. In their respective fiction, both Tyler and Rooney craft ensembles of ordinary, uncelebrated people, albeit some are more affluent and articulate than others residing within the same pages. In direct, readable prose, both writers chronicle their characters’ quotidian words and activities, all the while underscoring how the search for self can lead to quirky, surprising, and irrational acts and decisions, at times resulting in deep, long-lasting regret. And for both writers, the backdrops for the principal characters are for the most part rife with understated but no-less-present familial dysfunction. Anne Tyler has executed this formula for her fiction since the mid-twentieth century, creating memorable, enigmatic characters taking unexpected action in novels that leave readers wanting more when they reach the final page. In the same vein, Sally Rooney has crafted both sympathetic and despicable fictional figures for the twenty-first century, with her problematic protagonists taking similarly surprising steps that may yield more questions than answers in the minds of her readers.
Evie and Marianne: Rebellious Seekers of Self
The respective heroines of the two novels under discussion here most certainly represent different socioeconomic classes: A Slipping-Down Life’s Evie Decker is the daughter of a math teacher at her high school in small-town North Carolina; in Normal People Marianne Sheridan’s mother is a solicitor in Sligo, and the family owns a large estate featuring an expansive garden and a tennis court, not to mention the “holiday home” in Trieste (163). However, once one gets past the economic dichotomy, the common histories of these two young women, and their paths to surviving and overcoming them, become readily apparent. Both are high school seniors, Evie 17 years old and Marianne at least that age. Considered unattractive by her peers, Evie is described on the first page of Tyler’s novel as “a plump drab girl in a brown sweater that was running to balls at the elbows.” In describing her spring wardrobe, Tyler informs readers that Evie’s “skirts were full, with waistbands that kept folding in upon themselves, her sleeveless blouses came untucked and her sandal straps slipped off her heels” (14). Rooney’s early description of Marianne’s appearance and wardrobe paints an equally dismal picture: “She wears ugly thick-soled shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face. People say she doesn’t shave her legs or anything” (3). Another bond between Evie and Marianne concerns their nuclear families: both are being raised by a single parent. Evie’s mother died in childbirth; her distracted father, who reveals in conversation that he does not know his daughter’s age, is described as “a vague, gentle man who assumed that Evie would manage just fine wherever she was” (7), a benign neglect bearing the threat of malignancy. Tyler suggests an element of received and ultimately intuitive knowledge on Evie’s part that no doubt sows seeds of misery—Evie’s suspicion that her father holds his wife’s death against her: “Her father never mentioned her (and never said, ‘You are what I traded your mother for, and it was a bad bargain at that,’ which was what Evie continually expected to hear)” (35-36). Marianne’s late father has left an equally dismal legacy of received or subjective knowledge for his daughter. Deceased when Marianne was thirteen, he left her with a mother who remains indifferent to the verbal and physical cruelty Marianne suffers at the hands of her older brother Alan, not unlike the abuse Marianne received from her father while he was alive. Denise dismisses Alan’s assaults on Marianne as “a little sibling rivalry” (148) and “decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression toward Marianne as a way of expressing themselves” (68). This latter observation of Rooney will prove to share the same prescience as Tyler’s assessment of Sam Decker.
Parental indifference and dysfunction undoubtedly play a role in their victims’ social isolation and attempts to emerge from silence. Evie posts good grades in school and has one close friend, the equally unpopular Violet. Yet, as Tyler informs us, Evie “walked most places alone. She carried her books clutched to her chest rounding her shoulders. Her face, which was pudgy and formless, poked itself too far forward. And like most heavy people, she had long ago stopped expecting anything of her clothes. . . . When classmates met up with her they passed in a hurry, barely noticing her” (6). In the social circles of their high school, Evie and Violet are voiceless onlookers, not participants. Evie “complained to Violet that she had nothing to look forward to. ‘Summer is coming . . . and there I’ll be on the porch. Getting fatter. Reading romances . . .” (14). Marianne may be a bit more accomplished a scholar, as “she is the smartest person in school,” but she suffers the same exclusion as Evie: “She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels” (2), although readers learn later that cerebral titles such as Swann’s Way and The Fire Next Time grace her bookshelf. Just as Violet appears to be the lone classmate to interact with Evie, “the only person who actually talks” to Marianne is her fellow student and future boyfriend Connell (6), whose mother is employed as a housekeeper for the Sheridans and only converses with Marianne when he picks his mother up from work, this despite their proximity in classes. Marianne also shares Evie’s fears of time and opportunity slipping away quickly: “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it” (10). Readers meet both of these heroines as they are about to proactively address their fears of missing out by breaking out of silence and passivity. And in both cases, their quirky responses to these fears are spurred on by their respective attractions to like-aged males: a pair of short-distance infatuations about to develop into so much more.
Drumstrings and Connell: Objects of Affection with Professional Objectives
For Evie, watching Bertram “Drumstrings” Casey perform his music in person awakens her to his charismatic on-stage presence: “his face . . . gave off a glow across the cheekbones and down the bridge of his nose . . .” (21). And Marianne becomes smitten with Connell Waldron as he plays center forward on the high school soccer team: “His figure was like a long elegant line drawn with a brush. . . . It was pleasurable to watch him” (11). In addition to this at first unknown and for the most part unexpected “worship from afar,” the respective male protagonists of A Slipping-Down Life and Normal People share a multiplicity of demographic, psychographic, and circumstantial bonds, with one significant exception. If income represents the major difference between Evie Decker and Marianne Sheridan, intellectual pursuit is the category where Drumstrings Casey and Connell Waldron most widely diverge. Nineteen-year-old Drumstrings has left high school behind as he focuses on his budding career as a rock guitarist, and higher education does not appear to be a priority in the Casey household; at one point his mother Ora says of her family: “We may not be college-educated . . . but we are law-abiding . . .” (106). Conversely, the slightly younger Connell ranks first in his class in English (the only subject in which he outshines Marianne), achieves perfect scores on his graduation examinations, and, with the same focus as Drumstrings pursues a music career, sets his sights on going to University on a full scholarship. The educational trajectory of Drumstrings and Connell provide an example of the contrasts in the “School-to-Work Transition.” Drumstrings Casey belongs to the group of young adults for whom the academic setting is “not the social arena in which their identity and their future is made” (Maguire, qtd. in Maguire and Ball 51). The opportunity to pursue a career in music allows him to seek “work that is engaging, that sits with who [he is and who he wants] to be.” He no doubt sees the launching of his music career as his “entry into . . . adulthood” (Maguire and Ball 51). On the other hand, Connell, given his academic achievements and the encouragement of his mother, lives with the “underlying premise” that he will forego career employment for a while and “go to ‘uni’” (Maguire and Ball 52).
Alongside this difference, similarities between the two abound. Both young men come from relatively modest means and hail from an economic class lower than those of their respective romantic partners. Drumstrings’ father works at the gas station adjacent to the family home, while Connell lives with his single-parent mother in a “terraced house with . . . a tiny concrete yard” (18). Lack of sufficient funds will prove problematic for both of these characters as their stories unfold, a dilemma landing both of them jobs in gas stations and food service, as well as placing their romantic relationships in jeopardy. Drumstrings and Connell rely on personal if not financial support from Ora and Lorraine, respectively—a nod to Freudian observations of the mother-son relationship as quoted by Jane Gallop: “A boy’s mother is the first object of his love, and she remains so . . . in essence, all through his life” (Gallop 148; Gallop’s emphasis). Although Drumstrings’ musical ability has yet to attract any fans outside of Farinia, North Carolina and its environs, Ora Casey declares to Evie and her son’s friend and fellow musician David that “deep down I know he has a wonderful career in front of him” (83). And Lorraine, who “would want him to be happy” (27), is fully supportive of Connell’s academic aspirations: “she doesn’t want him having to work too much through college, she wants him to focus on his degree” (50). And, perhaps in light of her youthful misstep, Lorraine gives Connell sound advice, along with a wide berth, when it comes to interpersonal interactions: “I must be the most permissive mother of anyone in your school. As long as you’re using protection, you can do what you want” (23). These maternal votes of confidence are unfailing until both men make what their mothers consider disastrous personal decisions. Throughout both novels, in most cases these young male protagonists proceed to do what they want (or think they want) on several levels and within varied contexts—embodying a series of quirky, costly, and bittersweet choices that can be chalked up in large part to youthful impulse.
Drumstrings and Evie: A Slipping-Down and a Surprising Rising
In A Slipping-Down Life, Evie first learns about Bertram “Drumstrings” Casey when she hears him interviewed on a local radio program. Impressed with his unique stream-of-consciousness on-stage song creation, she and Violet step out of their usual isolation to see him perform at The Unicorn, a local club. On her equally surprising return to the club to see his act a second time, Evie sheds her silence and calls his out name at the end of his set, taking a flash photo of him and instigating a direct but wordless face-to-face encounter. She admits to Violet that the act of taking the photo was spontaneous, i.e., completely out of character for her: “It wasn’t something I had thought up first. . . . It was spur-of-the-moment. ‘Why not?’ . . . Impulse. . . . That’s what it was” (24). Evie and Violet become regulars at the Unicorn, but soon this engenders the defeatist attitude Evie expressed about her previous evenings at home. Tyler provides readers with Evie’s inner thoughts: “Wouldn’t you know that Evie could never have anything for herself without a lot of other people butting in and certain to win in the end?” (26). Then, in one of the most bizarre plot actions to be found in an Anne Tyler novel, Evie executes a surefire way to garner attention: “She had cut the letters with a pair of nail scissors. They ran all the way across her forehead, large and ragged” (30). They spell “Casey” backward, as if they were etched on her forehead while looking in a mirror. In her study of Anne Tyler’s novels, Rose Quiello equates this act to a major rite of passage: “Evie Decker’s carving becomes . . . a sexual wounding, replete with all the graphic detailing of blood and movement—the loss of virginity, the breaking of the first seal” (54). Evie’s immediate response to the event is one of withdrawal, a regression to a silent state. After medical treatment that does not remove the lettering, “she stayed in a draggled bathrobe . . . while clutter collected magically in an oval around her chair. . . . Evie hardly moved, just sat on the back of her neck with her arms limp at her sides and an open magazine in her lap” (45). The wound stands as Evie’s defloration for much of the novel’s duration, as her relationship with Drumstrings remains platonic even as she again steps out of character and into quirky mode to suggest an unorthodox partnership with him: “I was thinking if I started coming to all your shows, where people could see me. Wearing my hair off my face. Wouldn’t it cause talk?” (60). Drumstrings’ initial dismissal of this idea morphs into acceptance with the encouragement of his partner David, and Evie takes on the role of his number one fan at the front table during his performances. Being placed on display in this way, arguably a case of exploitation, bolsters Evie’s confidence and earns for her at least some of the attention previously denied; “this year, everyone wanted [Evie’s] autograph [in their yearbooks]” (75). What it does not achieve for her, however, is attention from Drumstrings Casey: “In the evenings she sat at her window slapping mosquitos, gazing into darkness so heavy and still that it seemed something was about to happen, but nothing ever did” (77).
Drumstrings’ act achieves some minor success, manifested by a gig at a more formal venue at which Evie does not participate, but this is short-lived as Drumstrings is fired for paying too much attention to the daughter of the club manager. At this point in the novel it becomes his turn to engage in Tyleresque quirkiness—actions and decisions that seem out of character and outside the mold of traditional masculinity. Despite his previous indifference to Evie, he comes to her home seeking reassurance from her about his musical talent. And despite his disdain for her physical appearance, recommending that she check out the “slenderizing place” in Tar City (111), it is not long after this that he proposes marriage to Evie. As readers of Tyler probably would expect, she accepts. Although it can be argued that Drumstrings is largely bereft of the traits associated with masculinity as articulated by Tyson, the marriage of Drumstrings and Evie cements the shift of power to Evie, who finds her voice in planning the wedding, deflecting parental objections from both sides, setting up housekeeping, and ensuring sufficient household income. Still holding out hope for Drumstrings’ dreams of musical fame, one final publicity stunt engineered by the newly confident Evie goes awry—as does their relationship. Yet Tyler leaves readers with questions regarding the future of her protagonists. Both are still young; they could reconcile, especially in light of Evie’s pregnancy. But even if they do not, Tyler suggests that at least one of them is poised to leave youthful foibles behind; by the novel’s end, Evie has grown to a state of what Belenky and colleagues could call “constructive knowing” and is positioned to “transcend the carving up of her forehead (and the threat of a slipping-down life) to the carving out of a grounded, firm-footed, reality-based existence sans rock-star fantasies” (Donohue, “A Slipping Down Life”).
Connell and Marianne: Circuitous Routes to “Normalcy”
Four decades (and two generations) after Evie Decker shed her silence and shyness to meet Drumstrings Casey, Normal People’s Marianne Sheridan takes similar proactive steps in her pursuit of Connell Waldron. Armed with a keen wit and the more liberated sexual climate of the twenty-first century, Marianne emerges from silence and passivity to make aggressive moves that qualify as quirky in light of her nature and psychosocial history. She opens the door to a deeper relationship with Connell with her out-of-the-blue declaration, “Well, I like you” (7), when he comes to pick up his mother from work. Less than a week later, Connell follows up on her statement: “You know you were saying the other day that you like me. . . . In the kitchen you said it. . . . Did you mean like as a friend, or what? (15). With the same definite tone of her opening salvo, she responds, “No, not just as a friend” (15). This leads to their first kiss—her very first kiss, readers learn—along with an awkward pre-coital encounter in Marianne’s bedroom while Lorraine is in the house downstairs. Despite the conversational comfort zone he enjoys with Marianne—“he has a sense of total privacy between them. He could tell her anything about himself, even weird things, and she would never repeat them” (6)—Connell suggests, and she agrees to, bizarre, inconvenient, and nonbeneficial terms in their relationship, a sign that Marianne is far from free of her history of dysfunctional received or subjective knowledge. Connell suggests that “it would be awkward in school if anything happened with us,” to which Marianne replies, “No one would have to know” (15). Shortly afterwards, he tells her, “Don’t go telling people in school about this, okay?”; Marianne answers, “Like, I would talk to anyone in school” (16).
Even after their relationship becomes sexual, the secrecy insisted upon by Connell remains in effect, and Marianne, described as “secretive” and “independent-minded” (22), doesn’t mind when Connell overtly ignores her in public. Readers may think that Connell’s and Marianne’s relationship could and should have been brought to light once Marianne becomes part of the Debs fundraising committee, although she is described as not quite a participant but rather an “intruder, and an awkward one” (32). But this does not happen. At a pub gathering, the bullying she endures from some of her fellow committee members and the sexual harassment from an alumnus do not elicit a strong, immediate response from Connell. Far from serving as the traditional protective male, at worst he makes excuses for the ex-student’s conduct—“Apparently if you have house parties it’s okay to mess with people” (44). At best, he curses at Rachel, Marianne’s chief nemesis among the committee girls, drives Marianne to his home, and while they lie down together in a non-sexual encounter, “He tells her that she’s beautiful,” and later declares, somewhat surprisingly, “I love you. I’m not just saying that, I really do.” These words inspire Marianne to believe that that particular moment “was it, the beginning of my life” (45-46).
At this point Connell makes the first of several unexpected and unfortunate choices, a series of surprising missteps that lead to complications for both himself and Marianne. Whether out of fear for his reputation to escort the eccentric smart girl to the big dance, or out of his ignorance of the fact that, as it is later revealed to him, “He and Marianne could have walked down the school corridors hand in hand, and with what consequence? Nothing really, No one cared” (80), Connell asks another girl—Rachel, no less—to the Debs. Marianne, “savagely . . . humiliated” at this rejection (64), and with no prospects for another escort, responds to this blow with a return to the silent state—a self-imposed isolation akin to that seen in Tyler’s novel: Marianne “went . . . straight to bed, where she slept for thirteen hours without waking. The next morning she quit school [and] she stayed home in her room all day with the curtains closed, studying and sleeping at strange hours. . . . She never went back to school again except to sit for exams” (64-66).
Much as readers are arguably brought up short with surprise and disappointment at Connell’s abandonment of Marianne, her response to seeing him that Fall at Trinity College Dublin, which they both attend, comes as a narrative shock. Although university life appears to agree with her, as “she has a lot of friends and she’s happy” in Dublin (75), and now has a boyfriend willing to be seen with her in public, she nonetheless says to Connell, “I’ve missed you,” a “directness, coming so soon and unexpectedly” to both Connell and the reader (76). Connell’s failure to pick up on this message as swiftly as he did on the earlier “Well, I like you” salutation is on one level understandable, since unlike Marianne he is experiencing some difficulty assimilating at Trinity. Yet it is jarring to readers who are rooting for this couple as he passes on a chance to reconnect with the one young woman to whom “he could tell anything about himself.”
For the remainder of the novel, Connell and Marianne remain caught in a cyclical volley of distressingly quirky choices, where Connell’s multiple withdrawals from rekindling the relationship result in Marianne’s choices of increasingly toxic boyfriends, a demonstration of both her continued failure to develop valuable procedural knowledge as well as the persistent reinforcement of received knowledge from her nuclear family. Their separation after the Debs debacle brings her together with Gareth, who according to Connell is a Holocaust denier (83). Shortly after they attend a house party as platonic companions where Connell takes care of an inebriated/high Marianne, the couple engages in conversations centered on Connell’s guilt and Marianne’s forgiveness, which suggest to the reader the possibility for reconciliation. In fact, Rooney informs readers, “Things are pretty good between [Connell] and Marianne at the moment” (100), and we learn that Marianne does much to elevate Connell’s social status at Trinity: “Marianne tells her friends—people whose fathers are judges and government ministers, people who went to inordinately expensive schools—that Connell is the smartest person they will ‘ever meet’” (102). But once again, Connell makes a surprising choice, and not in Marianne’s favor: “He moved home after the exams and she stayed in Dublin. He said he wanted to see other people and she said: Okay” (114). Freudian psychology might alternatively explain Connell’s move back to Sligo in terms of a return to maternal support. This development leads Marianne to make a second disastrous choice of new boyfriend in Jamie, a reservoir of arrogance, anger, and violent (albeit consensual) sex. Rooney then presents a surprising rescue role-reversal, as Marianne, who has sustained more than her share of physical injury, takes care of Connell after he is mugged; he then tells her that she “could have a different boyfriend” but stops short of suggesting himself, adding, “guys are always falling in love with you, from what I hear” (152). And when she learns that he has begun a steady relationship with another young woman, Helen, Marianne is again left vulnerable to dysfunction and exploitation, this time as an exchange student in Sweden where she meets Lukas, a photographer who takes bondage photos of her that may have been posted on the internet. Her proactive extrication from Lukas suggests an emergence of voice and an epiphany of liberation for Marianne, but the destructive cycle readers have come to know threatens to continue as she runs into Connell once more at the funeral of a high school classmate.
With Connell breaking with Helen essentially over his continued contact with Marianne, they are free to resume their relationship, and this time it is he who says to her, “I missed you” (242). In addition, in uncharacteristic heroic form, Connell seizes an opportunity to rescue Marianne from Alan after a violent encounter at her home. And once again, just when readers may think that conventional happiness will at long last be within reach for the pair, we are brought up short one final time. At just the point where both are content with the professional and personal components of their lives, Connell surprises Marianne with news of his acceptance in an MFA program in the United States. Adding to this disruption is Connell’s disclosure that he shared his intent to apply with Sadie—a fellow student who arranged for the publication of his first short story. Initially upset with having been kept in the dark about Connell’s plans, Marianne musters an adult, unselfish response: “You should go . . . accept the offer. . . . It’s just a year” (271), adding later, “I’ll always be here. You know that” (273). And Connell offers these words of reassurance for her: “You know I love you. . . . I’m never going to feel the same way for someone else” (272). On the surface, this may seem like positive closure for the couple, but one could also argue that Rooney, like Tyler, leaves room for speculation regarding the future. Will Connell thrive, survive, or be eaten alive in New York City? If Marianne is abandoned, will she sustain her newfound experienced-based, constructed knowledge or backslide into dysfunction once more? At one point late in the novel Connell comments that “we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions” (239); if so, what about the impact of larger decisions—such as those that require crossing an ocean?
Ironically, it is the arguably least literate character among the quartet analyzed who asks the most probing question applicable to the motivations and actions portrayed and perpetrated in these two novels. During the climactic argument that concludes A Slipping-Down Life, Drumstrings questions Evie about the event that changed her life: “Now that you have done all that cutting . . . and endured through bleeding and police cars and stitches, are you going to say it was just for purposes of identification?” (184; original emphasis). If readers were answering for Evie, they would likely respond in the affirmative; the carving was seen as a means to the ends of attention, liberation, and connection—all essential elements of crafting an adult identity. Similar quests for a sense of self and self-understanding drive Drumstrings’ unorthodox method of composing songs in his quest for a career as a popular musician: “on my bed arguing with the strings . . . sooner or later something comes out” (4); Connell’s stutter-step life choices as he navigates interpersonal relationships within a new socioeconomic class; and Marianne’s acquiescence to debasement in multiple relationships despite stellar academic achievement. In similar fashions in a similar prose style, Anne Tyler’s and Sally Rooney’s characters take unexpected routes toward these universal goals of adulthood. Both A Slipping-Down Life and Normal People can be summed up thematically by Tyler’s words from her 1972 novel The Clock Winder: “Life . . . a constant collision and recollision of bodies on the move in the universe” (249). And Tyler’s novel could be summed up by the words used by Hugh Linehan to describe Normal People: a “drily forensic dissection of [young adulthood’s] disappointments, dead ends and tribulations.” Whether readers see the glassware as half-empty or half-full for some or all the principal players in these two fictional worlds, they are nonetheless treated to a series of quirky, intriguing, and thought-provoking detours en route to the dénouement.
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Image credit: IJAS Online believes that the use of the images above of book covers to illustrate an article concerning the books in question is excepted from copyright under fair dealing or fair use. The image of Tyler’s book is of the 1970 Knopf first edition; the image of Rooney’s novel is of the 2018 Faber and Faber edition.