I finished the book a few days ago (for the second time), and it moved me like nothing ever has before (haven't got the chance to see the show yet). I still think about it very often; a part of the reason is that I can totally relate to this story – a young adult trying to figure himself out in such a messed up world and resolving inner conflicts on the passage of self-discovery.
The book represents teenagers dealing with the complex issues in the transition of becoming adults (from high school to university); It has one of the most realistic storylines in terms of emotions, behavior, and journey of maturity from the teen-to-adult life.
The story set is in Ireland, about the relationship between Connell and Marriane over time. In high school, although they are both intelligent, like to read, and interested in the world around them, Connell is popular, attractive, and athletic (who played football in their school team). However, his family is poor:
"His clothes are cheap and unfashionable, and the only shoes he owns is an ancient pair of Adidas trainers, which he wears everywhere, from gym to parties."
His mom Lorraine works as a cleaner in Marianne's house. She had Connell when she was 17 and dropped out of school since then (never told Connell or anyone who his father was). On the other hand, Marriane is the quiet girl who always sits in the corner, unpopular and bookish. But she came from a wealthy family and lives in a big mansion with her older brother (abusive) and mom (her dad passed away when she was young). Their socioeconomic division adds powerful dynamics to the story.
They started with a casual, sexual relationship, in which they both agreed not to tell anybody. At school, Connell "did not speak to Marianne in school or even look at her" because he was so insecure about other people's opinions if they figured out they were dating. Since he wants to be thought of as a 'good guy,' it wouldn't be a reputational gain (social status) for him to talk to the 'misfit.' For Marriane, she just had no one to befriend with.
"He opens the door. Before he lets her in, he looks over her shoulder, to make sure that no one has seen her arrive."
However, as the storyline goes on, they both developed feelings for each other.
"They’d been laughing together, at a shared situation they’d found themselves in, though how to describe the situation or what was funny about it Marianne didn’t know exactly.”
However, as they were getting better, Connel invited Richael (the popular girl Connel didn't really like) to the Debs (the formal ball for students in their final year), not Marriane. After Connel told Marriane, she never went back again ever since; withdrew completely (a vulnerable person with a broken heart). She felt somewhat abandoned because no one else would invite her to the Debs. After Marianne stopped going to school, Connell entered a period of low spirits; he finally realized how much he had lost for making that decision; it was devastating. He wanted to apologize through text message, but Marraine never responded.
Then the transition happened; in university (Trinity College Dublin), Marriane blossomed, and Connell struggled to find his footing.
"He doesn't have friends to eat with, he reads over lunch."
“… He’s acquainted with most of his own classmates, but no one he would have a proper conversation with.”
"After these months away from home, life seems much larger, and his personal dramas less significant."
Once, Connell was invited to a party by a guy named Gareth (Lorraine said it would be a good idea for him to get to know people). After some chat, Gareth introduced his girlfriend to Connell, which, not surprisingly, was Marianne. Marianne seemed comfortable in the upper-class university environment and has become very sociable than she was. That was the first time Marianne encountered Connell in college, and she pretended everything to be okay.
Before one summer, Connell could not pay his rent, and he thought about staying with Marriane in her apartment for two months. But when it comes down to asking her directly, he just couldn't do it. After the misinterpretation of Marriane – thinking he meant a breakup and wanted to meet others back home in Dublin, Connell didn't try to get her back; he instead compromised.
After the breakup, both of them went on. Marriage found a new rich boyfriend, Jamie (an arrogant, boring, and hostile jerk). While on vacation in Italy, they had a fight. Jamie behaved madly in front of everyone, which led to their breakup. In the following months, Jamie spreads unpleasant rumors about her to their friend groups. Then, during a year of studying in Sweden, Marianne had another relationship with a photographer named Lukas. However, their relationship ended abruptly after a photoshoot incident.
Meanwhile, Connell had quite a long relationship with Halen (I try not to be annoyed by her because I am so biased towards Connel being together with Marriane). Halen is nice to Connell, but when it comes to Marianne, she seems snobbish and jealous. In Rob Hegarty's funeral (a guy who was in the same high school with Connel and Marriane, who recently committed suicide, caused Connell severe depression), Halen just got mad about how Connell looked Marianne. She criticized Marianne a lot, and because Connell couldn't bear the fact that their conversation always ended on Marianne, they broke up (I guess she's just insecure, an innocent victim who felt like Connell just wasn't all there for her).
By the time university graduation approaches, Connell and Marianne finally got a chance to spend Christmas together; in Connell's house with his mom Lorraine. Despite all the troubling times Marriane had had, she felt welcomed there. When Connell was accepted to a creating writing programme in New York (MFA: Master of Fine Arts), Marianne told him he should go, and she will always be there.
I have to admit that I am an emotional person when it comes to this novel. I am just madly in love with the relationship between the two. There were times in the book when I felt intense senses of confusion, depression, deception, lust, hate, and love.
That sense of privacy between them is precious. Marianne is a secretive and independent-minded person, in which Connell doesn't need to worry about her turning her back against him the next second and screenshot the chat history to someone else.
“When he talks to Marianne he has a sense of total privacy between them. He could tell her anything about himself, even weird things, and she would never repeat them, he knows that. Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him.”
In the first third of the book (during high school time), I don't see maturity from Connell. He has no sense of self while at school; his self-recognition is tied to others' views. WhereasMarianne was not attractive during her school days, and she had really low self-esteem:
"Sometimes sees herself at the very bottom of the ladder, but at other times she pictures herself off the ladder completely, not affected by its mechanics, since she does not actually desrie popularity or do anything to make it belong to her."
The whole Debs storyline is a messed-up move for Connell; he could have saved himself if he had just asked Marianne to the Debs. What Connell and Marianne really need the most is simply to communicate better. There is so much unsaid between them, and their lack of communication caused severe problems. They often misinterpret each other, leading to unnecessary hurt on both sides. I can see a notion of ambiguity; neither of them wanted to tell each other how they actually felt (love or fear).
I could very much relate myself to Connell, a person with self-doubt, freshness, and innocence (maybe both attractive and deeply flawed at the same time haha). In the book, there are some issues that I think most teenagers face in their adolescence. The first one is about university. When deciding where to go, Connell was confused and conflicted. Staying in Galway (where he lives) means he can be with the same social group. Or, he could choose to face the unknown – going to Trinity.
"... Live the life he has always planed on, getting a good degree, having a nice girlfriend. People would say he had done well for himself."
Moreover, when choosing the major, Connell worried about the job prospect of his degree (English).
"Connell had no interest in Law, he just put it down because he couldn’t think of anything else.... It’s not like English is a real degree you can get a job out of, it’s just a joke, and then he thinks he probably should have applied for Law after all.”
We might make wrong decisions while choosing a major, wanting to take on a certain degree because we are good at it, not necessarily out of interest. The conflict Connell faced in this situation reminds me how lucky I am to have found what I love doing. There are people indebted with student loans. There are people who are super talented academically but just can't see the value in their education because going to college means they will spend all their working-class parents' savings... I'll never forget how privileged I am, with no concerns over tuition fees, cost of living, plane tickets... nothing.
- On books & writing
"Literature moves Connell... He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that... It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another."
"It feels powerful to him to put an experience down in words, like he’s trapping it in a jar and it can never fully leave him... He couldn’t explain aloud what he finds so absorbing about his emails to Marianne, but he doesn’t feel that it’s trivial. The experience of writing them feels like an expression of a broader and more fundamental principle, something in his identity, or something even more abstract, to do with life itself."
Guess that’s the magic with books – the pleasure of being touched by great art. I found myself in a similar place, fascinated by books and imagining myself being the protagonist, finding close connections between me and the characters...
- Connell's internal change
"People moved away, he moved away. Their life in Carricklea, which they had imbued with such drama ad significance, just ended like that with no conclusion, and it would never be picked back up again, never in the same way."
"The secret for which he had sacrificed his own happiness and the happiness of another person had been trivial all along, and worthless. No one cared."
We, as humans, are masters of self-deception; we act in some way that fools us into believing in something false. And yet, we are unaware of it. All of us are unbelievably good liars that the best lies we tell are to ourselves. For Connell, not only he constantly sought for others' validation, he fooled himself into believing the lies he was telling himself. To be a person of status with social acceptance, he had to stay at a distance from misfit to avoid the 'shamefulness.' But at the end of the day, no one really cared...
Marianne is a lovely character who I wish she would live close by me.
“You mean they’re not interested in the world around them..."
When Connell was lost, Marianne was the one that stood out to support him, giving advice whenever he needed it. They find themselves with commonalities: jokes that they all get, topics they all find interesting in, and the enthusiasm to explore the world around them. Sometimes, when talking to your peers about Politics, they just had their 'why care' expression on their faces, as if that's something completely irrelevant to them. The feeling of intimacy even without specific reasons or many mutual experiences is gold.
- About school
"Marianne was so totally uninterested in what people thought of her, so extremely secure in her own self-perception, that is so hard to imagine her caring for attention one way or another."
It’s rare not to see people who are not excessively other-referential. I like people who just focus on their own business and don’t care awfully about how others are doing. Sometimes life doesn’t have to be a race, and making comparisons can be a terrible amount of extra work.
“Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere every far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would every find out where it was and become part of it."
Lately, a part of me feels as if I belong somewhere bigger. I often feel like my current situated place is very limited where I don't get the chance to stay get in touch with the things I love. I wonder if I'm just another guy who nobody gives the slightest time of me excelling, they are good with me being 'good enough.'
“Marianne’s classmates all seem to like school so much and find it normal. To dress in the same uniform every day, to comply at all times with arbitrary rules, to be scrutinized and monitored for misbehavior, this is normal to them. They have no sense of the school as an oppressive environment... It seemed so obviously insane to her then that she should have to dress up in a costume every morning and be herded around a huge building all day, and that she wasn’t even allowed to move her eyes where she wanted, even her eye movements fell under the jurisdiction of school rules.”
Although I don't hate being at school. But sometimes, I feel like I don't share the same vision with my peers even though we are in the same classroom, sitting less than meters far, and taking similar notes on our iPads. There's so much more to do in life than worrying about grades! The most passionate learner is the one who stands out among the crowd, not someone who complains about some teacher for being a harsh grader.
At school, we are not given much space for independence at all. Every minute of our time here is structured. Wake up at a specific time in the morning, finishing breakfast before morning classes, lunch, afternoon classes, dinner, evening prep time. I think people should have the freedom of autonomy. It's okay if you persuade people what's the right thing to do, but you should give them incentives to make them behave in the 'right way.'
- The book stays
The book makes me believe that the chemistry and connection between people will still go far even when we are all so lost. It's a perfect representation of life and how we change as youngsters. The relationship between Connell and Marianne is invaluable; they could pick up each other's phone call at 3 in the morning when one feels depressed; they change how each other think because their love for you is beyond physical.
The ending was sort of perfect. It makes me feel like I need to live in the present, don't forget what's important in life, and somehow believe that the purest relationships that are meant to be in our lives will always find a way back. I know this book will stay with me for a long time