With the Normal People TV series out now and Sally Rooney’s phenomenally grounded, honest, and cutting novel almost two years old, it’s time to look at the best books like Normal People for readers who have recently rediscovered the novel or viewers who have been entranced by the Normal People TV series.
Normal People is a book that’s hard to define, and one that builds its success on a variety of unique moving parts. The most prominent aspect is a love story that could be called tragic but is so true to life and less like fiction that it feels far more honest than dramatic or tragic.
Another is the theme of class politics that weaves itself so deftly and seamlessly through the novel. And then there’s the fact that Rooney’s writing style, similar to that of Cormac McCarthy, breaks many of the rules of grammar and punctuation to a very affecting degre, and with effective results.
So, with all that in mind, here are ten books like Normal People that share a link to the novel that is either romantic, political, or structural. These books are semi-categorised into classics, Japanese novels, Irish literature, and one wild card.
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Classic Books like Normal People
In many ways, Normal People feels like a return to form for Irish and British literature. It harkens back to the troubled and fiery love stories of the romantic and gothic periods, all while presenting something modern in more ways than one. With that said, here are three classic books like Normal People.
I’ve seen some, but perhaps not enough, comparisons between Sally Rooney and Jane Austen. I’d go so far as to call Rooney the Austen of the 21st century.
Fans of Austen’s novels, especially Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Emma, know that Austen was as interested in satirising the class politics and social dynamics of her period as she was in telling a good love story or family drama.
Austen was a genius at deconstructing and poking fun at those wrapped up in class politics. And no writer today does the same thing better than Sally Rooney.
With that in mind, fans of Normal People would do well to travel back in time and build a happy stack of Jane Austen novels to work through.
And it works out nicely that most Austen fans would recommend beginning with her most famous work: Pride and Prejudice, which also happens to be the Austen book that is most like Normal People.
While there are many modern books like Normal People, it’s never a bad idea to go back and enjoy one of English literature’s best-loved authors, especially when she can offer us Pride and Prejudice, one of the best books like Normal People.
A criminally underrated novel that shares much of Pride and Prejudice’s DNA is one of my favourite 19th century novels: Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Even more than Pride and Prejudice, this novel has an awful lot in common with Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
In fact, you could even put them together in a kind of intergenerational trilogy: Pride and Prejudice, North and South, and Normal People. Through these three books, you can see how the class system and even the economic behaviour of the British Isles has shifted and changed (or hasn’t).
North and South tells the story of a privileged young woman from Hampshire who is forced to move up to a suffocating northern industrial town. There, she forms a difficult relationship with the owner and master of a cotton mill: Mr Thornton.
These two have every right to hate one another. She hates him for his coldness and brutality to his workers, while he scoffs at her closeted and privileged attitude to Victorian life.
Like Normal People, North and South is a troubled and turbulent love story that is interwoven so tightly with its politics and class divides. In fact, the more I consider it, of all the books like Normal People, North and South might well be the one that most closely resembles Sally Rooney’s novel, despite being generations apart.
Normal People isn’t only defined by its class politics. At its core, it is a troubled and difficult love story that explores how our upbringings, families, and even neighbourhoods define our attitude towards love and relationships.
At times, it approaches this with a real dramatic flair reminiscent of the tragic relationships seen in gothic literature.
And there is perhaps no gothic romance more beloved and iconic than Emily Bronte’s only novel: Wuthering Heights. Here is the story of a house, isolated in the Yorkshire moors, in which lives a young woman whose life is disrupted when her father brings home a ward.
Heathcliff is a strange unknown from a very different walk of life, and his obsession with Cathy is absolute.
While Connell and Marianne never come to such dramatic blows in the love story of Normal People, there are still definite parallels between these characters and those of Wuthering Heights.
Both Rooney and Gaskell explore the hotheadedness of young men who are so lacking in control when it comes to their emotions, their passions, and their anger.
On the surface, Wuthering Heights doesn’t seem like one of the most obvious books like Normal People, but spend some time with its characters as individuals, and the lines between them start to show, especially between Connell and Heathcliff.
Japanese Books like Normal People
I’ll go into this more below but there is a strong and undeniable bond between Normal People and the love stories of Japanese literature. It comes from the fact that both ignore many of the tropes and rules of romantic literature. If you like how Normal People portrays love, you’ll love these three Japanese books like Normal People.
Translated by Jay Rubin
One of the many reasons that Normal People resonated so strongly with me as a reader is its approach to romance and love which reminds me so vividly of Japanese literature.
Japanese novels are unconcerned about writing a three-act love story that falls rigidly into the ‘comedy’ and ‘tragedy’ categories. Instead, most Japanese love stories are less about romance and more about mirroring real life, with all of its blemishes and bumps in the road.
Normal People, in that sense, behaves very much like a Japanese novel. And one of the most celebrated Japanese novels of the 20th century is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, a very rough, harsh, and brutally honest story of young love and new experiences.
Much like Normal People, Norwegian Wood explores love from the perspective of young and inexperienced people dealing with their own issues of mental health, grappling with the adult world that is looming on the horizon and steadily approaching.
These are damaged youths trying, and sometimes failing, to survive. Looking at it from this perspective of grounded honesty, Norwegian Wood is certainly one of the best books like Normal People.
After you’ve finished watching the Normal People TV series, pick up and read Norwegian Wood. I have a feeling they’ll go together very nicely.
Read More: Where to Start with Murakami
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
Another of the Japanese books like Normal People is Strange Weather in Tokyo by beloved Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami. Kawakami takes a very similar approach to friendship, romance, and young love and life as Sally Rooney does.
You can find a lot of similarities between all of Kawakami’s novels and the books of Sally Rooney, but Strange Weather in Tokyo is certainly one of the best books like Normal People. It ticks so many of Rooney’s boxes.
Strange Weather in Tokyo is a sweet and warm love story, but one that doesn’t shy away from politics. Though it does so much more gently than Rooney does.
Here is the love story between a working woman in her thirties and a man who was, in another life, her high school teacher. They meet at a bar, reconnect, and begin an awkward but pure romance that blossoms in the softest, kindest way.
Where politics comes into play is in what Tsukiko and her sensei represent. One is the Japan of the old world, trapped in the past; the other is a modern woman of post-war Japan. Their relationship represents the blending of two very different worlds. But that is exactly what modern Tokyo is. It makes for some strange weather.
Translated by Megan Backus
The final novel in our trilogy of Japanese books like Normal People is Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. This is one of my personal favourite Japanese novels of all time. A book so far ahead of its time that I have already banged on about again and again.
Kitchen was published in the late 1980s and features the complex and blossoming relationship between a young man and woman in their late teens. The woman is chased by death, which has now taken so many members of her family. The young man lives with his transgender mother and is a sombre character in his own right.
Their story is one of friendship and romance complexly intertwined, as so many relationships are. It’s a book of blurred lines (not in a Robin Thicke kind of way) that explores the confusion, fear, and anxiety that comes with young love at a time of life when wounds are made easily and stay open.
In that regard there are few books like Normal People in such a specific way. Fans of Normal People will love and cherish every page and character of Kitchen.
Irish Books like Normal People
If reading Normal People has inspired in you a dive into the world of Irish literature, there are countless authors, poets, and playwrights worth exploring. But, for now, here are three Irish books like Normal People.
Normal People is a subtly political novel, but it is a love story first and foremost. Milkman, on the other hand, which came out the very same year as Normal People, is a far more heavy and brutal political Irish novel.
Set against the backdrop of the troubles, Milkman tells the story of a young woman living in a nameless Irish neighbourhood and amongst family members who love nothing more than to gossip and add a kind of crushing gravity to the lives of those around them.
Milkman is surreal and intense, with its experimental and unique approach to structure and grammar, as well as the fact that nobody is given a proper noun in the whole novel.
There are some high literary concepts at play here but, at its heart, it is a paranoid book born from the politics that inform it.
If Normal People has inspired an interest in 21st century Irish literature, you can’t do better than picking up Milkman, a work of absolute genius.
Another piece of incredible Irish literature informed by the Irish troubles. Sweet Home is the only book on this list that isn’t a novel. Instead, Wendy Erskine’s book is a collection of short stories that speak to life on the ground level.
Much like Normal People, Sweet Home is a novel concerned with class politics, the state of Ireland in the 21st century, and how people today live their lives and experience love, friendship, and family ties.
This book is an exploration of ordinary life in 21st century Ireland from an astonishing range and variety of perspectives. It’s a wonderful collection of short stories for fans of Normal People and Milkman.
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Colm Toibin is perhaps Ireland’s best loved modern novelist. His novels are literary and fiercely clever, but also approachable and warm. They’re inspired by the political landscape but they don’t shy away from romance and trust.
Brooklyn is Toibin’s best-loved novel. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of a young Irish woman who heads across the pond to Brooklyn, NYC in order to find work and make a success of herself. There, she finds happiness but is soon enough whisked suddenly back to Ireland.
There is love, family, and the search for something more here, all of which are themes that Brooklyn shares with Normal People. The choice between love and success, or love and happiness, or love and opportunity – it’s a familiar push and pull theme but one that both books explore expertly.
The Wild Card
This one might not seem to make much sense at first, but my first thought when reading Normal People was how much Sally Rooney’s writing style reminds me of Cormac McCarthy.
These two writers are worlds apart in terms of themes, setting, characters, and stories. But they both have a method and style of writing that is very much the same.
Most apparent is the fact that both writers omit speech marks and use a minimal amount of punctuation in their writing. This provides a seamless flow that gives the impression that reading their books is somehow quicker, smoother, easier, with fewer roadblocks in the way.
But it goes even further than that, with both writers having apparently studied at the George Orwell school of writing: making their books infinitely rereadable thanks to a minimalist approach to writing, not only in terms of punctuation but also in their addictive dialogue and simple approach to vocabulary.
If you found yourself reading and enjoying Normal People in part because of how Sally Rooney writes, then you will absolutely love Cormac McCarthy’s approach towards writing and structuring his stories. And The Road is his masterpiece.