Normal People is the book of the moment right now. It was a big hit when it was published in 2018, and thanks to the BBC adaption its popularity has skyrocketed.
Set in Ireland, the story follows the intense relationship between Marianne and Connell from 17-year-old school kids, to their final year of University. It’s a story about love, friendship, growing up, mental health, class, and identity; and it has struck a chord with the millennial generation.
Since it first came out, I have read Normal People twice and would count it as one of my all-time favourite books. So you can bet I was excited to see how they would adapt it to screen, and I was not disappointed.
It was a tough task. Rooney’s novel is very much character rather than plot driven: it is more about what Marianne and Connell are thinking rather than what they’re doing. So that’s a tough thing to bring to screen! But it has been well executed, with natural dialogue and intense, drawn-out silences – giving the suggestion of an internal life and emotional connection between our two leads.
So you’ve read the book; you’ve watched the series. What now?
Here are the books you need to fill the Normal People shaped hole in your TBR pile.
One Day, David Nicholls
This one seems like the most obvious choice. One Day is about Dex and Em who meet at University and follows their relationship into their young adult lives. The characters’ thoughts are not as intensely written as Rooney’s, but Nicholls still shares a talent for writing flawed characters and making us emotionally invest in their relationship. My favourite line from One Day really sums it up:
“I love you so much. So, so much, and I probably always will. I just don’t like you anymore.”
This is exactly how I felt reading One Day – no matter how many mistakes that Dex and Em made, how frustrating they were, I still loved them. I had a very similar feeling about Marianne and Connell in Normal People. They are not always likeable, but this is what makes them seem so real and human – and I love them unconditionally as a reader, like they were old friends.
Flight, Oona Frawley
This is a book where the personal and political collide. Set in Ireland 2004 with the Citizen Referendum fast approaching, this is a book about belonging and identity. Like Normal People, relationships are the emotional core of this story, but rather than a romantic relationship, it is about family and female friendship. It follows three women:
Zimbabwean born Sandrine, who comes to Ireland to make a better life for herself and her family. She takes a job as a carer for an elderly couple Tom and Claire.
Claire has followed her husband’s career around the world from America to Vietnam. Now back in Dublin, her memory is fading but reminiscences of Hanoi are still clear in her mind.
Elizabeth – Claire’s daughter – has a childhood of constant movement and change behind her. As an adult, she struggles to form a stable relationship with her parents and her so-called ‘home’ country.
This is a book that crosses boarders confronting themes of motherhood, national identity and memory through its beautifully complex characters.
If Normal People has left you hungry for more contemporary Irish Literature, you should check this one out.
Just Like Tomorrow, Faïza Guène (Sarah Adams, translator)
Interested in Normal People’s themes of class, identity and growing-up? Faïza Guène’s book might be a good choice for you.
The UK edition definitely packages the book as a YA for teenage readers, but don’t be fooled. This is a short but mature story, better captured by its original title Kiffe Kiffe Demain, which is French-North African slang for “different day, same s***”.
It follows 15-year-old Doria, who is growing up on an estate on the outskirts of Paris. Her parents moved to France from Morocco in the 1980s, and their life never turns into the romantic European ideal they hoped for. Doria is first generation born in France. Her father has gone back to Morocco to start a new family. She now lives alone with her mother, who is an overworked, underpaid cleaner in a F1 Motel and does not speak French. The language barrier means she needs a lot of support from her daughter.
Like Normal People, this really isn’t a plot driven novel. More a year in the life of a teenage girl, as she navigates the complexities of being Muslim, Moroccan AND French. It is unflinchingly honest about what it’s like to be a poor girl from an immigrant family, faced by almost constant racism and misogyny.
I Love you Too Much, Alicia Drake
This is one of my absolute favourites. It’s told from Paul’s point of view – a 13-year-old boy trying to navigate an adult world. It is not a voice that always understands the world around him, but Drake doesn’t fall into the trap of patronising her young narrator; she sensitively gives Paul all the respect he deserves, resulting in a raw and vulnerable account of mature themes.
While his family is falling apart, he finds an unlikely friendship with Scarlett from school – his opposite in many ways. She is as bold and confident as Paul is timid and quiet. But they are both alike in feeling unloved by their families.
Like Sally Rooney’s writing, Drake’s book is driven by emotion and the internal lives of her characters, portraying a poignant story of youth, love and loneliness.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh
A fan of reading frustrating and flawed characters? Then you’ll love My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
Our (anti) hero is an unnamed 24-year-old woman, who lives in a New York apartment on her late parents’ inheritance. It is a privileged but hollow existence. Alienated from the world, she decides to hibernate for a year, taking drugs that make her sleep all day every day.
Based on that premise, you’d be right to think that nothing much happens. Not unlike Normal People, it is more of a character study than it is a typical three act plot, and it is surprisingly gripping!
The main character lacks purpose or meaningful connection with anyone else; sleeping is her self-destructive solution to cope with life.
The Idiot, Elif Batuman
Connell’s difficult experience of university is one of the lesser talked about parts of Normal People, but it’s possibly one of the most relatable for many millennial readers.
The Idiot is another great coming-of-age story set at university. It’s about Selin, a Turkish-American freshman at Harvard, struggling to cope with increasingly complex relationships and university life. Like Connell, Selin feels completely lost at times, wondering how everyone else seems to instinctively navigate their new lives.
Naïve and wise all at once, The Idiot beautifully captures the disorientating and lonely time of becoming an adult.
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
Last year’s brilliant Women’s Prize winner. Honestly, if you haven’t already read this, what have you been doing?
A great choice if you love books about relationships that evolve over time.
It tells the story of Celestial and Roy, a young black couple who are building a life together in Atlanta, when Roy is wrongfully accused of a crime and sentenced to twelve years in prison. A love story that is unjustly interrupted.
Their letters while Roy is in prison masterfully capture the distance – both physically and emotionally – between them.
Through Roy and Celestial’s story, Tayari Jones confronts racial discourse and the American justice system; she is a brave and brilliant storyteller writing about complex issues with complex characters to match.
Voila – that’s seven books to add to your TBR pile.
If you loved Normal People as much as I did, I know you’ll enjoy these too.
Or if you’re tired of hearing about Normal People, well… think of it as seven great books you can talk about instead.