“The redemption narrative she pushes in both of her novels is strikingly similar to the story at the core of Fifty Shades, which, despite its provocative trappings, is prudish at heart. In the movie adaptation of the best-selling series, the phrase “normal people” recurs over and over. Christian, who is traumatized by the most boilerplate childhood abuse, initially rejects the conventions of romantic relationships. He doesn’t “make love,” he tells Anastasia, he “fucks.” He doesn’t have girlfriends, just submissives who sleep in the room down the hall. From the first, Anastasia devises to fix him: she yells that the pair should talk like “normal people,” that they should share a bed “like normal people.” If sadomasochism is a running theme in Normal People, Conversations with Friends and Fifty Shades of Grey, it is not because any of these novels evince the slightest interest in the transformative potential of subversive sex but rather because sexual quirks are readily legible as a form of deviance in want of normalization. We know that Christian has recovered as soon as he proposes to Anastasia and thereby catapults into a respectable, bourgeois marriage. Ah, the domesticating comforts of missionary sex with the lights on! Ah, normalcy, wholesome as a baby tooth!
Yet even as Rooney’s fiction valorizes the normalcy of its heroines, it also positions them as possessing extraordinary powers. In Fifty Shades, Anastasia is the only one who can soften the tyrannical tycoon’s hardened heart. In Twilight, Edward, the brooding vampire of everyone’s dreams, tells Bella her blood is uniquely delicious. For her part, Marianne is the “smartest person in school”; what Connell is blessed to share with her is “something he could never have with anyone else.” And Marianne and Anastasia are not only irresistible to their lovers but also to everyone else they meet. Every male character in the universe of Fifty Shades is inexplicably fascinated by Anastasia: her male friend lusts after her, her employer’s son asks her on dates whenever he’s back in town, and her boss commits a #MeToo-adjacent transgression when he confesses his adoration a little too forcefully. Marianne, too, is universally admired, and Rooney is not shy about emphasizing how much everyone in Normal People yearns for her. Connell often reflects that Marianne “is very popular and a lot of other men want to sleep with her.” She “has a lot of other romantic options, as everyone knows.” At one point, Connell tells her, “guys are constantly falling in love with you.”
So is she normal, or isn’t she? The truth is, the book fulfills a ubiquitous romantic fantasy precisely because it can’t decide. Who wouldn’t like to succeed in romance without really trying? Who hasn’t sometimes wished that their normalcy were exceptional? And who among the overeducated leftist set has not dreamed of surpassing their opponents without compromising their egalitarian virtue? The commercial and critical success of Rooney’s books is no mystery, for they give the comforting impression that, whoever you are, you too could make out with a preternaturally beautiful vampire or get handcuffed to a torture machine by a magnate with washboard abs. You too could publish the story or seduce the entire school. You too are different—and that is what makes you the same!”