You are what you eat, they say. That goes for readers and for characters alike. In Normal People by Sally Rooney, it turns out Marianne’s scant breakfast speaks volumes about her emotional state.
The novel–and the acclaimed television miniseries–tells the story of two young people, Marianne and Connell, who meet and hook up in high school (though clandestinely), attend the same college where they fall in love (arguably, again), and then struggle to reconcile their love for each other with who they find themselves becoming as they approach graduation.
A Peek at the Data
After reading the book, I wanted to explore the relationship between the two lovers further. Using quantitative literary data, I created a visualization of the names “Marianne” and “Connell” throughout the story. Here’s what I saw.
Scanning the chart, I fixated on the fourteenth chapter in the book entitled “Five Months Later (December 2013).” It struck me that Connell’s name was used only once in the chapter, the fewest number of times in the entire novel. (There are a couple other variations of his name that appear like the possessive “Connell’s”, but only twice.)
What is happening in this chapter that caused the author to virtually eliminate her book’s co-star? And what does breakfast have to do with any of this?
The one time Connell’s name is used in the chapter is in the introductory paragraph. The chapter, which describes Marianne’s semester abroad in Sweden where she dates a photographer named Lukas, includes this.
As we continue in the chapter, we learn that Lukas and Marianne’s relationship is one of power and domination. The former belittling and controlling the latter, albeit with Marianne’s permission to do so. Lukas frequently attacks Marianne’s worth and sense of self, both within the bedroom and without.
What an Absent Connell Presents
It is striking that Connell’s name appears only once in a chapter where Marianne has coupled with such an unkind person. The data visualization drew my attention to the way Rooney writes the character of Lukas in implicit contrast to Connell. The former insists on demeaning Marianne emotionally and physically; the latter could never bring himself to do so.
The contrast between Lukas and Connell, and their respective relationships with Marianne, is what makes Marianne’s breakfast significant: “one black coffee with brown sugar, one lemon pastry roll.” Both breakfast items contain contrasts akin to the contrasting men in her life. Her coffee is both darkly bitter, but also made more palatable with a sweet additive. Her pastry contains both the tartness of lemon with the sugar, butter, and flour one expects of a fine confection.
Marianne Accepting Marianne
With this culinary dichotomy in mind, Rooney’s description of Marianne eating takes on even greater meaning. She writes, “The more slowly she eats, and the more consideration she gives to the composition of her food, the less hungry she feels.” Marianne appears to be reaching a key moment in her development. As readers encounter her deliberating her need for sugar and coffee, ambrosia and tang, what they also witness is her slow realization that she is fundamentally worthy of love.
And the near absence of Connell’s name in this chapter reinforced for me that Marianne’s revelation of self-acceptance must be achieved on her own. One bite at a time.