Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, has been that rare beast: literary heavyweight and fixture on the bestseller lists, both. If you’ve read the book, watched the show, and still hunger for more, here are our suggestions for what to read after Normal People.
Set during the 2008 financial crisis, Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People follows an on-off relationship between bookish sixth-former Marianne and her popular, sporty high school peer Connell, and their move from smalltown County Sligo to Trinity College, Dublin, as they grow up, grow apart, and come together again. A 2020 television adaptation – starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, and shown on the BBC, RTÉ and Hulu – has stirred the public’s passion for the novel afresh. Here are our suggestions for what to read next: if you like Normal People, we think you’ll like these books too.
If you’ve somehow made it this far without reading Rooney’s previous novel – her rollicking, quick-smart debut Conversations With Friends – then we suggest you correct this immediately. It follows performance poets and Trinity College students Frances and Bobbi as they fall in with (and fall for) an older married couple, Nick and Melissa. It’s full of snappy dialogue and searching questions about what love, jealousy and infidelity might mean, in a non-monogamous, non-heteronormative world. Full of snappy dialogue and earnest debate, it’s as much a portrayal of obsessive friendship as a two-headed love story, and it cleverly subverts many of the tropes of the romantic comedy without losing their appeal. (Also available – and highly recommended – is Rooney’s short Mr Salary, shortlisted for The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and published as a mini paperback by Faber.)
Another novel from a gifted young Trinity College alumni, Dolan’s newly-published Exciting Times is set in Hong Kong, but satirises a similar social circle to those of Rooney’s novels: highflying British and Irish ex-pats working for investment banks and corporate law firms. (One can imagine the characters of Exciting Times lurking in the background at Marianne’s student parties only a few years previously.) Ava, a hard-up TEFL teacher, begins socialising with this fast crowd when she starts sleeping with Julian, an emotionally withdrawn Old Etonian, but finds her ironic detachment challenged when she falls for the hardworking, earnest Edith. Skewering the social mores and snobbery of the young bourgeois, and – like Rooney – turning a gimlet eye upon the intricacies of interaction-by-social-media, Exciting Times is a book of one-liners and catty asides that will make you bark with laughter.
Like Normal People, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah follows the lives of two teenagers from first love into the disillusionment of adulthood. Ifemelu and Obinze meet at high school in Lagos, Nigeria, and later part – Ifemelu departing Nigeria to study in the United States, Obinze later becoming an undocumented migrant in the United Kingdom – before coming together again as adults in Lagos only to realise that a distance has grown up between them over the years. Told with subtlety and in non-linear fashion, Adichie’s captivating novel is a scintillating social commentary on the Americanisation of Africa, and the experiences of the African diaspora, all tied together in a poignant love story that unfolds over a period of many years.
Rooney, who has a masters degree in English literature, told The New Yorker in 2018 that her books are “basically 19th-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing” – books that Connell spends much of his time reading as an English student at Trinity College, Dublin. (The eagle-eyed with notice Rooney uses a quote from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda as an epigraph.) The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex) also took inspiration from the English literary canon in his third book, a campus novel set Brown University in Rhode Island, in which the English major Madeleine Hanna havers between two suitors, while writing her thesis on Victorian romances. There’s more to it than that – Madeleine takes a detour into Derrida and Barthes; her hapless admirer Mitchell wrestles with theology; her mercurial boyfriend Leonard is diagnosed with bipolar disorder – but, in essence, this metafictional love triangle is a book about books that has much that will appeal those who like Normal People.
Marianne’s willingness to abase herself for love sees her repeatedly seek out violent or degrading sexual relationships – and later, in a climactic scene, to ask Connell if he would hit her. Though he declines, elsewhere he reflects on how “he has never been able to reconcile himself to the idea of losing his hold over her”. The uncomfortable relationship between Marianne’s low self-esteem and her masochistic streak has been criticised by some in the BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Submission, and Masochism) community, but is one of the themes explored in the medley of short stories in Bad Behavior, the collection that made Mary Gaitskill’s name. Like Normal People, this book is full of frank depictions of sex and off-kilter balances of power, and it also contains the story that inspired the strange but charming BDSM romcom Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhall. The original version is darker, but just as intriguing – as are many of the stories. If you like what you read, be sure to pick up Gaitskill’s post-#MeToo novella This is Pleasure.