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How to Identify a Sally Rooney Novel

Irish born Sally Rooney has been making waves in the contemporary literature scene in recent years. Though she only has two novels to name, she’s obtained several prestigious award nominations, and bagged herself some wins, too.

Her latest book Normal People (2018) boasts the title of Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2018 and Costa’s Best Novel, whereas her 2017 debut Conversations with Friends was nominated for the 2018 Folio Prize. In 2020, Normal People was adapted into a television show by Hulu and BBC Three.

The show, starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, was hugely popular and won the hearts and tears of viewers around the country. We are looking forward to seeing what Rooney comes out with next; her style of writing is fresh, and both of her novels are overtly emotional and intimate in their portrayals of their central relationships.

Though the two stories she tells are unique from each other, there definitely are similarities between the novels that make the writings of Sally Rooney easily identifiable as her own.

Sally Rooney


The absence of a father figure is something that can cause a lifelong trauma, and Rooney definitely doesn’t shy away from this. In Conversations with Friends, main character Frances and her best friend Bobbi both have complicated relationships with their fathers; Frances is dependent on hers, though is fearful and concerned with his erratic and sometimes dangerous behaviour. Bobbi rejects her father for his bourgeois behaviours but will still happily accept gifts from him in the forms of expensive designer coats and allowances.

In Normal People, Marianne’s father is dead, but was abusive in life. Connell’s is simply entirely absent. Lots of people grow up with complicated relationships with their fathers or without one at all, so it’s not unrealistic to see four stories of four people who face these issues. It’s an interesting unifier between Rooney’s main characters, but I can’t help but wonder why she so often uses these strained relationships.

Extremely intense and tender relationships

Connell and Marianne’s relationship in Normal People is breathtaking. They were each other’s first loves, and two people who seemed incapable of staying away with each other. No matter where they went or who they aligned themselves with, their paths always seemed to cross. They display an astounding amount of devotion to each other, and reading their relationship almost felt wrong, like you were peeking into the minds of two people going through their most life defining, tender and intimate moments.

Conversations with Friends also featured an intense first love, this time between Bobbi and Frances; when their narrative begins, they’d been broken up for quite a while but were still tethered to each other, despite their semi-frequent habit of clashing. Frances also begins a deeply emotional and sexual relationship with married actor Nick, from whom Frances derives feelings of being not only wanted, but desired and craved.

The relationships seen in Rooney’s works maybe stay with us, the readers, because we can relate so much to either the situations partners experience together, or the feelings of insecurity individual members of the relationships feel. Rooney’s characters are famously terrible at communicating with each other, so no one truly knows where they stand. This results in delicious but heartbreakingly real drama.

A personal account of the Trinity student experience

Rooney herself was a student of Trinity College in Ireland, as are her characters Connell, Marianne, Frances and Bobbi. So many writers advise you to write what you know; Rooney sticks her characters in an environment that she is intimately familiar with.

In her third year at Trinity, Rooney fell in love with her partner John. She told the New Yorker in 2018 that she ‘didn’t write any good fiction until [she] met [her] partner.’ Most students will tell you that they’ve made strong and long lasting relationships at their time in education, and it seems that Rooney is no exception to that. Through her characters we may just be seeing the personal accounts of loves she’d found, both romantically and platonically, at university.

Buy Conversations With Friends

Buy Normal People

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