“Can I borrow your copy of Normal People?” is the question on all my friends’ lips. The second novel by 29-year-old Irish author and Costa book prize winner Sally Rooney, tells the story of Marianne and Connell who meet at school and proceed to love each other beautifully, but infuriatingly.
After being adapted into one of the sexiest and most successful TV series of the year, Normal People has become lockdown reading for half of the UK population. I read it in three hours and texted my boyfriend this quote when I finished it in a puddle of emotion: “She had tried to be different in the past, as a kind of experiment, but it had never worked. If she was different with Connell, the difference was not happening inside herself, but in between them, in the dynamic.” Oof.
I hadn’t read a book that instantly compelling for years, and now, like every other Normal People fan, I’m on a mission to find another high calibre ‘will they, won’t they’ love story that turns hours into minutes and interferes with my soul. Ahead are 10 recommendations for ‘books like Normal People’, some from me, some from bookworms at Refinery29, to fill the hole Marianne and Connell have left in our spare time.
One Day is one of those books people are embarrassed to admit they like because it’s not very cool. Like Coldplay or Mumford & Sons. But it’s actually great. Written by David Nicholls — who, it might interest some ’90s types to know, also wrote some of the best episodes of Cold Feet — One Day happens over 20 years and recounts the friendship / true love story between Dexter and Emma, who first meet at university. It’s a lot like Normal People — but it goes on longer and ends better (arguably, arguably).
I hesitate before recommending this book because it’s unrelentingly dark, but also stunning and worth the investment (720 pages). A Little Life is a love story about four friends, two of whom fall in love with each other, but not exactly at the same time. The book is difficult and heartbreaking, not because of the central love story but because of the other plotlines, which involve horrific self harm and abuse. It’s very hard to read at times, and you don’t get into it right away, but once you do, you’re done for.
This book, published in 1996, is widely regarded as one of the best Young Adult fiction books. It starts innocently enough, in the easy language you’d expect from a novel aimed at teenagers: a boy (nicknamed Tar) and a girl (Gemma) are eating cheese and pickle sandwiches in the back of a Volvo estate. Then they run away and get heavily addicted to heroin and each other, and become aged beyond their years. The language follows, becoming more mature and nuanced, and breaking the book out of its YA genre. What unfolds is a very realistic mess.
The main reason everyone loves Normal People is because the author’s voice is so fresh and relatable. So it would figure that you’d go on to read her first book (if you didn’t in fact start chronologically with that). Conversations with Friends is also critically acclaimed and was noted in all the women’s magazine ‘best books’ lists in 2017. It follows the story of two friends, Frances and Bobbi, and a relationship with an older man, Nick.
Without Timothée Chalamet, what is Call Me By Your Name? A bestseller about love, desire and timing, again — a running theme in these stories. Timing is often the biggest barrier to love. For Elio and Oliver, it’s everything. Everything you loved about the film is in the book, which is the wrong way around but there you go. Additionally (or, originally) the book also offers a 15 years later meet-up. Post-cracking fire sob!
Diana Evans’ Ordinary People has more than just the name in common with Normal People. Delivering two epic love stories for the price of one, the book follows Stephanie and Damian, and Melissa and Michael as they face the troubles of the world, from parenting and grief to ageing and a change of heart. Set just after Obama becomes president, there’s currency and social relevance to the book too, which you could argue Normal People lacks. Fun fact: There are actual references to John Legend’s song “Ordinary People” in the book, which Michael listens to a lot.
Another totally uncool but totally consuming book about a long-term relationship. There’s a fantasy element (the time travel) which puts some people off, but if you can get past that, it’s actually an amazing plot line because it enables layered observations about sacrifice and compromise in a relationship, and about how the feeling of ‘love’ changes at various points in your life, from light to heavy, life-affirming to devastating. Plus a very memorable scene where the main character pleasures himself… literally.
Set between Lagos, Nigeria, and the US, Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who fall in love as teenagers and then take very different paths in life. One moves to America, one is denied a visa following 9/11. After years apart, they find their love for each other, and their homeland, back in Nigeria. As well as a great story, it smartly tackles race in the US and the UK. While perhaps a bit long for some (as Roxane Gay says in her Goodreads review, it could use a good edit!), when it is good it’s not just good — it’s compulsively brilliant.
From the writer of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, The Marriage Plot tells the story of Madeleine, a clever girl at an Ivy League university who has two love interests: Leonard and Mitchell. She loves them both in different ways because they offer her different things. One ends in marriage, but like all love triangles and marriages (hence the title), it’s not as simple as that
“A dark tale on modern matrimony” is how The Guardian described this love story. It was Obama’s favourite book in 2015, for god’s sake. Likened to The Girl on the Train in its popular appeal, the book is about a married couple who fundamentally get each other wrong. Much like Gone Girl, and the TV show The Affair, Fates and Furies uses the compelling structure of two perspectives, his and hers.
Originally published at https://www.refinery29.com.