Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difficulty of writing about love. For writers of fiction, there are few subjects more useful than romantic love. Romance opens people up, making them reveal sides of themselves they previously kept stored away. The chemical bomb that love detonates in one’s brain can make characters’ act unpredictably and rashly, which is always a good tool for drama. And, of course, sex is fun to imagine and write about. Romance is also good way to get buy-in from your readers. Most people have experienced the melodrama of love. Individual romances tend to define whole periods of one’s life. Who hasn’t felt an unexpectedly powerful twinge at hearing a forlorn love song, or upon reading about some tragic fictional romance?
Despite the potential utility of the subject, romantic love is also one of the hardest topics for a fiction writer to approach. Flirting is one such problem area. How does one capture all the ambiguities, micro-motions and excitement of flirtation? It’s notoriously hard to explain to people how to flirt for similar reasons; it’s a process one can understand intuitively but struggle to articulate clearly. Sex is omnipresent in fiction, but good depictions of it are infamously rare. This goes both for the anatomical specifics of any one encounter, as well as descriptions of the emotional impact of sex. It is the very power and mystery of romance, one of its most attractive qualities, that makes it so difficult a subject to capture in writing.
While mulling over these and other difficulties, it struck me that one contemporary writer’s work gracefully avoids all these issues, and manages to find a new and effecting idiom to describe the experience of love, especially of new love. So today, I’d like to talk a little about romance, specifically the start of romances, in the work of Sally Rooney.
Many of Rooney’s stories and novels include the start of romances. The characters that are drawn together seem oblivious to their own feelings and desires, and become motivated by unconscious forces. In her recent story, ‘Colour and Light’, the two central characters never admit that they are flirting with each other. When the older and mysterious Pauline invites the shy but attractive Aidan to her house for a drink, Aidan never admits to himself that they are preparing to sleep together. When things become too explicitly sexual on the sofa, Aidan reacts in petulant confusion, ‘He now feels utterly confused as to why they seem to be arguing, confused to the point of abrupt despair. Right, he says. Look, I’m going to go.’ Aidan’s motivation for going to Pauline’s home are obvious to the reader and surely on some level to himself, but neither him nor Pauline can quite admit what they are doing. Romance is spell that can be broken if acknowledged.
Rooney’s clever avoidance of over-description extends to her treatment of sex. A common flaw in sex writing is over-describing events, giving the reader a play by play of each anatomical interaction. Rooney wisely focuses on the emotional side of sex, while still giving enough detail to allow the reader into the moment being described. Nick and Frances’ first time together in Conversations with Friends conveys the emotional and sexual energy of the encounter beaitfully, ‘In bed he asked me what felt good a lot. I said everything felt good. I felt very flushed and I could hear myself making a lot of noise, but only syllables, no real words’. The sparing language and focus on what is going on in Frances’ mind allows the reader to understand the power of this experience. Despite giving less detail, Rooney gets much closer to the power and experience of sex than more descriptive writers.
Rooney is keen to play with the gender dynamics of flirting and dating. In her fiction men are not really masculine pursuers. They are much more often being perused. They are objects of physical beauty and emotional sensitivity that the women feel unworthy of. In Normal People, Marianne wants to watch Connell have sex but, ‘it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him.’
Throughout Nick and Frances’ affair, Frances refuses to accept any of the many compliments she is offered. She doesn’t feel abused or manipulated, but idolizes Nick, and Nick’s body, so much that she accepts that she is somehow unworthy of it. The strongest moments of sexual excitement for Rooney’s women come whenever they hear of how much they are desired. Marianne makes Connell whisper how much he wants her, that he would ‘die’ if he couldn’t have her. These women are clearly struggling with self-worth and self-image and in a sensitive and affectingly rendered way.
Bodies are things Rooney’s women feel alienated from and misunderstand. The women often feel either detached from or resentful towards their physical forms. Indeed, these bodies are often abused or in pain. Marianne is the victim of emotional and physical abuse from her disgusting brother, and Frances struggles throughout Conversations with worsening endometriosis. While their lovers are most often tender towards the women’s bodies, Rooney does suggest some hint of entitlement in her male protagonists. Connell has sex with Marianne frequently for many months but insists on absolute secrecy, terrified of his classmates finding out. It never occurs to him how demeaning it must be for Marianne, to have an intense sexual and emotional connection that she must always deny.
Despite her ability to write about these darknesses, Rooney really wants to celebrate romance and romantic relationships. She captures the joy of love with assurance and verve. Her characters feel the whole range of gratitude, joy, confidence and pleasure that accompanies new love. There are many beautiful scenes of intimacy in Rooney’s fiction; Frances and Nick’s slow sex in the night during their French getaway, Connell and Marianne’s moments of almost accidental opening up and vulnerability, and even Aidan and Pauline’s unspoken alliance in the face of Pauline’s gross partner. Rooney believes, rightly, that love is a positive force in people’s lives despite it’s incredible potential to mess those lives up entirely. As Marianne says, inwardly, at the end of Normal people, ‘People can really change one another’, and for the better.
 You’ll recognize the vocal signs of this. ‘That was back when me and Andy were dating’, ‘God, I haven’t had a cigarette since me and Rebekah lived together’, and so on.