door cracked open leading to red room

Here is one of my favorite passages from Normal People, Sally Rooney’s second novel:

“When he talks to Marianne he had 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.”

The key words here are weird and normal. This character, Connell, is totally preoccupied with what’s “weird” and what’s “normal” and how to ensure that he is fitting in among his peers.

It’s understandable that he might feel this way, since he is in high school, and hence surrounded by social pressures. And being young, he lacks the experience of someone older who might be able to comfort himself as regards to any fears of being “weird.”

The novel begins about here and takes Connell and Marianne through high school and off to college, and we watch them learn and grow. It’s a remarkable book, a page-turning read for anyone who has ever struggled with fears of not fitting in or made valiant efforts to express the self in unconventional ways.


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But I want to focus on the last sentence of this passage, for it is particularly lovely. Take away the word like and we have entered into a fantasy novel, where Marianne is a magical enchantress. Indeed, Connell feels that way about her at times.

And the image of walking through a door and closing it behind one is not just evocative of fantasy but a metaphor for reality. In the social space of high school, must a young person choose between fitting in (ignoring the door) and being oneself (walking through the door and shutting it)? Is there a middle ground where you can be yourself and be accepted for that? What about the social space of college and beyond; are those arenas any more accepting?

How much of our true selves can we share without being ostracized?

I struggled mightily with these issues in high school, college, and beyond. As a woman in her 40s, I now feel more free to do what I want. I have also gained valuable social skills that I lacked as a younger woman, making it easier for me to walk the delicate line between fitting in and being myself.

That’s all fine and good for me, but I can also think of situations and cultures where that delicate line does not exist, where people have to choose between conformity and speaking out. In some cases, there is no middle ground.

Does that delicate line exist for you? Are you walking it?

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