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Is Sally Rooney’s New Novel as Great as Her First?

By Sally Rooney

There is something about Sally Rooney’s novels that makes people embrace (and occasionally reject) it like a long-sought romantic partner. Though both her 2017 debut, “Conversations With Friends,” and her new novel, “Normal People,” are set in an exactingly depicted Dublin and West Ireland in the 2010s, her books describe the kinds of all-consuming romantic attachments that have bolstered narratives since Dido and Aeneas, or, O.K., Emma and Mr. Knightley. (There’s as wide a streak of affinity with the 19th-century novel in these books as there is with Sheila Heti.) Her characters are drawn irresistibly to one another (consistently consummating their attractions with phenomenal, heart-stopping sex), and come apart over petty misunderstandings, after which they tend to have “anxious, upsetting sex” with other people before reconnecting. Her prose, much like Salinger’s — her predecessor in philosophical post-adolescent neurosis — is sharp, dialogue-heavy and unadorned, written to be absorbed into the bloodstream quickly.

Part of the excitement of reading Rooney is seeing this old-school sensibility applied to what feel like acutely modern problems. In “Conversations,” Frances moves between an affair with a married older man and an on-again-off-again relationship with her female best friend. All four involved are self-consciously cool, progressive individuals who find themselves overwhelmed (in Frances’ case, to the point of self-harm) when pressed into action by brute desire. Rooney’s novels have the unusual power to do what realist fiction was designed to do: bring to light how our contemporaries think and act in private (which these days mostly means off the internet), and allow us to see ourselves reflected in their predicaments.

“Normal People,” even as it is almost physically impossible to stop reading once begun, feels in some ways like the slightly less impressive

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