Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People has taken the literary world by storm in its touching portrayal of young love. The book traces two protagonists, Connell and Marianne, from growing up together in their rural Irish town to attending university in Dublin and later journeying into early adulthood. The story of Connell and Marianne’s relationship and the way they fall in and out of each other’s lives is beautifully written. Despite her earlier success, it was Normal People that solidified Rooney’s position as one of the most talented new writers of this generation. If you enjoyed the book’s striking portrayal of a “will they or won’t they” love story, as well as its depiction of the experiences of young adults, family relationships, and friendships, make one of these nine books your next read.
1. Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney
If you loved Normal People, pick up Sally Rooney’s debut Conversations with Friends. Her earlier book centres around 21-year-old college student and hopeful writer Frances and her best friend and former lover Bobbi. When an older journalist named Melissa hears the two women performing spoken-word poetry, she brings them into her world. Reluctantly impressed by Melissa’s sophisticated life, and above all, by her handsome husband Nick, Frances’ life and relationships begin to spiral out of her control.
Conversations with Friends is filled with the same honest prose that made Normal People sensational. Like Connell and Marianne, Frances is a protagonist who forces readers to question how entwined our identities are with our relationships with others. Rooney proves herself adept at writing about intimacy and our deepest vulnerabilities, and fans of Normal People should be sure to check out her debut.
2. The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half follows the Vignes sisters, identical twins, who, at age sixteen, run away from their small black community in the south. As adults, their lives become vastly different. One sister lives with her daughter in the same small town she intended to escape, while the other secretly passes for a white woman, and her white husband is unaware of her past. Despite this, the twins’ lives remain connected, and weaving together multiple generations of this family across the United States over many decades of the late twentieth century, Bennett brilliantly chronicles how their families intersect.
With this novel, Bennett creates a delicately constructed family story which also serves as a microcosm for American history, including but also looking beyond issues of racial identity. Like Sally Rooney, Bennett is an expert at narrating human desires, assumptions, and the consequences of the choices we make. For another stunning novel that probes intimately into the human psyche, add The Vanishing Half to your list.
3. Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo
Lisa Taddeo’s non-fiction book Three Women uniquely explores desire, feminine sexuality, and heartbreak through it’s documentation of three real women. Taddeo spent years following these respective women to narrate the true stories of their various relationships. The first woman, Lina, is a mother of two from suburban Indiana whose marriage has died out, and who embarks on an intense affair with an old flame. Next is Maggie, a 17-year-old girl whose relationship with her married high school English teacher sends their small North Dakota community into chaos. Finally, Taddeo follows Sloane, an attractive and successful restaurant owner from the Northeast whose husband likes to watch her have sex with others.
Told with incredible frankness, Three Women is a storytelling triumph. Taddeo’s brutally accurate way of narrating desire and its consequences is reminiscent of Rooney’s depiction of love and sexuality. The nature of Three Women as a work of nonfiction makes the text even more powerful in how it exposes the fragility of intimacy, and readers who loved how Rooney dictated Connell and Marianne’s relationship should pick up a copy of Taddeo’s bestseller.
4. Everything I Know About Love, by Dolly Alderton
Another non-fiction pick, Dolly Alderton’s hilarious debut Everything I Know About Love is a stunning memoir about growing up, all while trying to navigate jobs, love, loss, and friendship. Alderton, a journalist, documents all the formative experiences of becoming an adult: bad dates, getting drunk, looking for employment, and the realisation that no one will ever compare to your best friends. Alderton herself will feel like your best friend by the end of this novel.
Everything I Know About Love could be considered the non-fictional counterpart to Normal People, and it is both heart-wrenching and hysterical as Alderton encourages her readers to realise that they are enough on their own. Documenting the terrifying truths that come with getting older in this generation along with all the wonderful moments, these two novels are a must read for anyone in their early twenties.
5. The Flatshare, by Beth O’Leary
Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare introduces two people who share a one bedroom flat yet have never met each other. Leon is short on money, so he works night shifts and stays in the flat during the day. Meanwhile Tiffy gets the place to herself at the end of her daytime work day. When complications arise—obsessive exes, testy clients, and an unfairly imprisoned brother—Tiffy and Leon’s relationship also starts to get complicated.
The Flatshare is a light and funny narration of young love, mainly romantic, but also concerned with friendship and familial love. Like Normal People, Tiffy and Leon’s “will they or won’t they” relationship is just as addictive as Connell and Marianne’s, so if you couldn’t get enough of the latter, then The Flatshare should be your next read.
6. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman
With Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman brings us an awkward and antisocial protagonist whose meticulously timetabled life includes frozen pizzas, vodka, phone calls with her mum, and as little human contact as possible. When Eleanor meets Raymond, an unhygienic IT guy from her office, and together they save an old man named Sammy, all three begin to draw each other out from their isolated lives. Eleanor learns from Raymond and Sammy that her damaged heart can be healed and even find friendship and love.
Like Marianne from Normal People, Eleanor is an unapologetic narrator in her weirdness and inability to fit in. Despite initially being complacent in their loneliness, both Honeyman’s and Rooney’s characters realise that life is infinitely better when you open your heart to others. Fans of seemingly unexceptional protagonists who loved the ordinariness of Connell and Marianne will fall in love with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
7. Burnt Sugar, by Avni Doshi
Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar is a story about a fraught relationship between an Indian mother and daughter. After Tara abandons her passionless marriage, joins an ashram, and lives briefly as a beggar to vex her rich parents, she ends up dragging her young daughter Antara along as she spends her days chasing a scruffy artist. When life begins to take its toll on her, her daughter is forced to care for the mother who never looked after her.
Like Normal People, Doshi’s novel is fundamentally a love story, but rather than being romantic, she documents the love, or lack of it, between Tara and her daughter. Burnt Sugar, nominated for the 2020 Booker Prize, at times feels like a hopelessly depressing novel, but its searing commentary on unhealthy familial relationships holds resonance to that of Marianne’s family in Normal People. As Rooney also demonstrated, love stories don’t always have to be happy. For another fierce portrait of obsessive and toxic love, consider giving Burnt Sugar a go.
8. Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
When blogger Alix Chamberlain has a family crisis, she asks her babysitter Emira to take her toddler to the grocery store to distract him. While they are there, Emira, who is black, is accused of kidnapping the white child by a security guard. This incident sets off a chain of chaotic events, including the drama that follows a racist statement publicly made by Alix’s news anchor husband Peter, and Emira’s new relationship with Kelley, the white man who films the supermarket scene and seems to fetishise black people.
In her debut, Kiley Reid questions to what extent we can form connections across divisions of race, class, and privilege. The nuanced, and sometimes painful, self-realisation that comes with growing up documented in Such A Fun Age echoes the commentary Sally Rooney makes in Normal People about class divisions and the various boundaries that separate us. For a slightly more political read, be sure to put Such a Fun Age on your list.
9. Exciting Times, by Naoise Dolan
Naoise Dolan’s debut Exciting Times follows Ava, a millennial Irish expat who has so far unsuccessfully moved to Hong Kong to find happiness. Unfulfilled by her new teaching job, moody roommates, and tiny apartment, she befriends Julian, a British banker. Despite her better judgement, Ava begins a relationship with him and moves into his apartment. When he returns to London, Ava stays put, uncertain where their relationship stands. When Ava then meets Edith, a Hong Kong-born lawyer, Ava’s life is thrown into even more chaos. She pretends Julian is nothing more than a roommate and cautiously steps into the unknown. When Julian tells her he is returning, Ava is faced with a decision between returning to her easy relationship with him, or taking a leap of faith with Edith.
Described by Vogue as “half Sally Rooney love triangle, half glitzy Crazy Rich Asians high living,” Exciting Times is hilarious, politically conscious, and heartbreaking all at the same time. Like Rooney, Dolan explores both the micro and macro impacts of our intimate relationships, and what it is like to fall in love in the twenty-first century. Dolan’s debut novel masterfully establishes herself as a compelling new author, and fans of Sally Rooney will be impressed by Exciting Times.