How Should a Millennial Be?

Sally Rooney, Dublin, 2016
Neutral Grey
Sally Rooney, Dublin, January 2016; photograph by Eamonn Doyle

“The great millennial novelist”—the mantle has been thrust, by Boomers and Gen Xers alike, upon the Irish writer Sally Rooney, whose two carefully observed and gentle comedies of manners both appeared before her twenty-eighth birthday. With this mantle have come prizes and money. Nearly every review has mentioned at least the prizes.

Cozy in scope and romantic in spirit, the novels are mild and tender portraits of Irish college students in the recent present. In the first, Conversations with Friends, Frances and Bobbi, two best friends in their early twenties who used to date and occasionally sleep together, fall for Nick and Melissa, a couple in their thirties. Frances begins an affair with Nick, threatening her relationship with Bobbi and allowing her to find some independence.

Normal People halves the action. Instead of a romantic quadrangle with two couples, we have “the chemistry between two people who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone”: Marianne and Connell, whose courtship, chronicled from high school through college, is fraught because Marianne’s family is rich and Connell’s poor. When the book opens, his mother is cleaning her mother’s home. Connell is too embarrassed to bring nerdy Marianne to a dance, and the couple split, but when they end up at the same university they reunite, dating on and off while struggling to figure out who they are.

Both books take place around Trinity College, Dublin, and are populated by witty and sensitive students who e-mail a lot. Both books feature scenes with cynical, distinguished male novelists and in both, one member of the loving pair is plucked for literary success by a kindly, more established person who submits their short story to magazines. The protagonists of both books are young women who have violent fathers and cut or hurt themselves.

Plenty of writers have made their mark by focusing on a small range of characters or locations. Who would begrudge William Faulkner Yoknapatawpha County or Philip Roth Philip Roth? Still, when several weeks after reading these books details from one began to blend into the other, I figured it might be worth looking at what unites them rather than what sets them apart.

Rooney is primarily concerned with social relations: How do people have power over one another? (“Power” is a word she uses often.) Her novels are attuned to the small differences of class and its millennial sister, privilege: the girl who wears thrift store clothes because it’s cool versus the girl who wears thrift store clothes because that’s all she can afford. “I struggled to make conversation with people of my own parents’ background, afraid that my vowels sounded pretentious or my large flea-market coat made me look rich,” thinks Frances in Conversations with Friends. “Philip [a friend]…

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