Sally Rooney And Intimacy In Millennials

October 11, 2019

Boy meets Girl.
Boy and Girl are attracted to one another.
Boy and Girl fall in love.
Boy and Girl become victims of a misunderstanding and separate.
Boy and Girl learn the truth behind the misunderstanding.
Boy and Girl reunite.
Boy and Girl live happily ever after.

How often have we been subjected to love stories that follow this trope? The world may have evolved, but love continues to be shown using the same monotonous themes in almost every romance we see or read. While these typical love stories, made famous by the likes of Nicholas Sparks, have been ruling the world of romance since the 90s, a new ‘Jane Austen of the precariat’ has now risen – someone who portrays the new-age, modern intimacy prevalent in millennials in a realistic way – Sally Rooney.

The millennial generation has moved from traditional dating to using social media and Tinder to find relationships, and texting has replaced conversations. This generation, labelled the ‘cynical’ one, has a very casual attitude about dating. Rooney’s books showcase a realistic portrayal of just how far the newest generation has come from the traditional notions of love, romance and sex, and how they are crafting love stories that are unlike the older generations. While her debut novel Conversations With Friends is a romantic quadrangle between two best friends (also ex-lovers) and a married couple, the Booker Prize longlisted Normal People shows us the on-and-off romance of a high school couple that is not really a couple. Through her books, Rooney reminds everyone that love is not lost, just that the millennial generation is altering the meaning of love a little bit.

Traditional Vs. Modern Notions Of Love Stories

In Conversations With Friends, Frances falls for Nick, a married actor at least 10 years her senior. While logic dictates that it can only end in Nick’s divorce or the end of their affair, Rooney unveils the reality of a world where people don’t always make the most rational decisions. She writes about a love where people hurt each other, but are still important to each other, and relationships that should not work still continue. While Rooney does use the abandoning all logic for passion kind of love often seen in traditional romances, she puts a different kind of spin on it. In her stories, we are aware that the relationship is unhealthy, but that doesn’t mean that there is no love. Frances and Nick show us how intimacy and hurt are not mutually exclusive but can go hand-in-hand.

Rooney’s characters question their actions, and her writing displays the rational and analytical manner in which they think, something that is sorely lacking in traditional love stories. But, even Rooney cannot resist the temptation of a traditional love, as Frances, at the end of the book, says, “You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.” Here, Frances, who prided herself on being logical, abandons it in favour of hope, which shows how love can affect even the most rational of people.

In Normal People, Marianne is the school outcast and Connell is the popular jock. So, he asks her to hide the fact that they’re having sex, which eventually leads to their break-up. Instead of a damsel in distress, Rooney gives us Marianne, a teenager who is defiantly herself, constantly trying to rise above the unpleasantness of her life, never relying on any guy to come save her. Her family life is in shambles, and even her future boyfriends are abusive towards her, but she regards this as a failure on her part, which relates to her low self-esteem, but never once does she feel that it is Connell’s duty to “save her”.

Then there is Connell, who is initially portrayed as a stereotypical guy, but gradually evolves into a vulnerable creature who struggles to understand his own feelings. Even though his gender might grant him the freedom to do anything he wants, he often feels the pressure of society’s expectations to “man up”.

While Marianne and Connell date other people from high school to college, they continue coming back to each other time and time again. But this love story is not just about that. It’s about how deeply people affect one another, and how people discover themselves over the course of a relationship. At the end, when Connell is going to New York to study, they are aware of their impending separation, but are also confident that they will find their way back to each other. There are no fistfights or emotional outbursts, but their love remains tender and touching.

At the end, when Connell and Marianne are set to part ways again, she thinks, “What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her.” By doing this, Rooney shows us how Connell and Marianne manage to bring out the best in each other. They live through the small moments of tenderness granted to them, fully aware of what lies ahead.

More than love, Rooney’s novels talk about intimate relationships and companionship, similar to Milan Kundera’s writing. Instead of writing one dimensional love stories, Rooney writes about love between regular people, converting those into fairy tales instead.

Realistic Expectations Of A Happily-Ever-After

Most romance novels end with lovers reuniting. It is human tendency to want closure, to know that two fictional characters have found their happily-ever-after and that there will always be love in their lives. We seldom stop to think that real life for these characters (as real as it can get in fiction) might begin after the end of the book, that their real life might not be that simple. Rooney is aware of it as she exposes the bitter truth of life, with sprinklings of tenderness to mirror real life.

Frances, in Conversations With Friends, might get a little swayed by love, but she is aware of the reality of what the affair entails. Deep down, she knows that a mature and handsome adult like Nick will discard her as soon as he gets bored, something that usually occurs in extramarital affairs. Even though Bobbi, Frances’ ex-girlfriend and current best friend, says that she doesn’t believe her, Frances’ lines that “love is the discursive practice and unpaid labour is the effect” shows us that millennials are well aware of the destructive power of love and treat it as such. When Melissa, Nick’s wife comes to know of the affair, Frances and Nick decide to end it, but the novel doesn’t end there. Rooney ends on a hopeful note, where Frances tells Nick to “come get her”. This is a novel on adultery, with neither a sad nor a happy ending. Instead, it is a display of our innate humanness, where the heart wants what it wants.

Normal People, on the other hand, might seem like a love story, but it is so much more than that. It is about two people learning to love themselves, and in doing so, finding love in one another. Through their first hook-up, Connell’s mental health issues, other relationships and Marianne’s low self-esteem, they are aware that happy ever after is not a destination, but a way paved through reality. Even at the end, when these two get together and Connell has to leave for New York, they are just happy to have helped each other be less broken.

These books ring true in a world where millennials are aware that real-life romance is not a fairy tale. Instead of relying on one person to make them happy, millennials are aware that only by conquering self-love can they move on to giving love to others. The concept of a ‘happily ever after’ seems unrealistic, and we are painfully made aware that love in real life is not that simple.

(Sally Rooney Image via Time)

Conversations Not Limited To Love

Millennials want more than just conversations around love with their partners. They want partners who are competent at verbal sparring, providing the right kind of mental and romantic stimulation. They are aware that though love might not last, conversations and a bright mind always will. This is exactly what makes the romance in Rooney’s novels more relatable for millennials.

When they are not sleeping with each other, Nick and Frances talk a lot about her poetry, art and their lives. Even while she was in a relationship with Bobbi, and post their break-up, their conversations remained the same, with topics ranging from privilege to capitalism and socialism to love, which kept their friendship going. They love, but that is not the only thing their lives revolve around.

Similarly, Marianne and Connell, both as friends and lovers, engage in witty conversations about communism, money, privilege, sexism and relationships. Even when they are broken up, Connell emails her since he feels that Marianne would have a very different take on a topic he finds interesting. Their relationship is not just based on them having sex, it also revolves around the observations and witty remarks that make up a real friendship.

Rooney, dubbed the ‘Salinger of the Snapchat generation’, hasn’t let go of romance in her books altogether. In a generation that is busy updating their Instagram feed, she presents the idea that we don’t need to stick to a traditional idea of love, nor do we have to sacrifice it altogether. She shows millennials that love is worth pursuing, despite its difficulties. She speaks of a love that is not co-dependent but one that shows how intimate connections can be made with or without the crutch of romance.

Prasanna Sawant

Prasanna Sawant

Prasanna is a human (probably) who makes stuff up for a living. When she's not sleeping or eating, you'll find her in the quietest corner of the library, devouring yet another hardbound book. She vastly prefers the imaginary world to the real one, but grudgingly emerges from her writing cave on occasion. If you do see her, it's best not to approach her before she's had her coffee.

She writes at The Curious Reader. You can read her articles here