Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan live in Carricklea, a rural village just west of Sligo, in Ireland. Marianne’s father died when she was thirteen. Connell’s mother, Lorraine, dropped out of school to have Connell, and only she knows who the father was. One afternoon, Connell arrives at Marianne’s home, where Lorraine cleans twice a week. As is their usual routine, Connell has come to give his mother a ride home, because she does not drive.
While Lorraine steps away to unload the clothes dryer, Marianne makes conversation with Connell in the kitchen. She is the smartest girl in school, but the way she dresses and her obvious contempt for other people have made her a social outcast. Connell is also smart, but he is quiet, often self-conscious, and inarticulate in conversation. He does not like how the economics teacher, Miss Neary, flirts with him, but Connell is unsure whether this means he is not attracted to her. His sexual experiences, mostly unpleasant, have left him confused about what sexual attraction is supposed to be like. Connell is embarrassed by the school rumor that he has feelings for Miss Neary.
If Connell has feelings for anyone, it is Marianne. At school, they pretend to be strangers, mainly because it would be embarrassing for him to be associated with the socially-outcast Marianne. In private, however, she teases Connell with suggestive comments. Being around Marianne makes him nervous and awkward. Connell says things he would not say to anyone else, because he knows she would never repeat them. In the kitchen, Marianne tells Connell she likes him. Lorraine returns before Connell can find words to answer and then has to prompt Connell to say goodbye.
Three Weeks Later (February 2011)
Marianne likes to read but hates school, with its uniforms and its silly rules, like mandatory attendance at athletic events. At a recent soccer game where Connell was playing, Marianne did not care about the score and instead thought about how beautiful it would be to watch Connell having sex with someone. Marianne knows that these kinds of thoughts make her different from the others at school.
After the kitchen conversation, Connell came to the house more often. Being with him often left Marianne feeling both energized and drained. Last week, when Connell asked what Marianne meant by saying she liked him, she replied, “not just as a friend.” Connell responded by kissing her. When he joked that she acted like she had not kissed anyone before, Marianne replied that she had not. The next time Connell was at her house, he came up to her bedroom and they began kissing. Marianne wanted to undress, but he said they should stop.
Today, as Marianne is about to go out, her older brother, Alan, stops her and grips her arm tightly enough to hurt. Alan demands to know that she has no friends and is not going to see anyone. Marianne says she is just going out for a walk. A little later, however, Marianne is at Connell’s front door, where he lets her in, checking that no one saw her arrive.
One Month Later (March 2011)
While lying in bed beside Marianne, Connell works on his college applications. He was planning to study Law in Galway, even though he cannot imagine being a lawyer. Marianne urges him to study English at Trinity College in Dublin, where she will be studying History and Politics. After all, Marianne says, he, like her, spends all his free time reading.
Connell feels a strange, intimate connection with Marianne. He does not understand his urge to be with her. Marianne is not especially attractive and is despised at school, but Connell finds her fascinating. Her life is free, he thinks, whereas he feels trapped. Studying Law in Galway would preserve the life he has now, whereas studying English in Dublin would mean the end of all his social connections in Carricklea. Connell’s current friends would consider him a failure or just forget about him. He has a sense of being two people but cannot keep both of them alive. Finally, lying next to Marianne, Connell decides on English at Trinity, trying in his mind to pretend that he can keep his life with Marianne separate from his life at school, and can maintain both existences.
Six Weeks Later (April 2011)
Possibly as a joke, Marianne has been put on the planning committee for the annual dance for graduating students (the equivalent of the senior prom). As a result, Marianne as to attend a fundraiser at a nightclub that Connell will be at as well. The girl in charge, Rachel Moran, talks as though she and Connell have a special relationship, but by now, Connell and Marianne have become more serious. Last week, Connell took Marianne on a tour of an abandoned housing estate. She found the filth in the buildings unsettling but used the opportunity to make smutty conversation. When Marianne joked about leaving him for someone else, it was Connell’s turn to feel unsettled.
Marianne arrives at the club in a clingy black dress. Connell arrives a little later with his friends Rob and Eric. Eric once loudly called Marianne flat-chested, but now he compliments her appearance. Not used to alcohol, Marianne gets slightly drunk. At the bar, a man the same age as Marianne’s brother pinches her breast, hard. Angry and in pain, Marianne retreats to a hallway. When the others from her school find her there and Connell shows concern, Rachel reacts with jealousy. Connell snaps at Rachel and offers to take Marianne home, which she accepts. But in the car, Connell invites Marianne to his house, instead. Lorraine is already in bed. In Connell’s room, Marianne talks about her fear of being physically assaulted. When she tells Connell that her father used to hit her mother, Connell assures Marianne that he would never do something like that. He tells her that he loves her and that she is beautiful. In Marianne’s mind, that moment marks the start of her new life. Years, later, she will still think so.
Two Days Later (April 2011)
Connell is second-guessing his statement to Marianne that he loved her. He is not sure that he does love her. They fell asleep after sex and awoke the next morning as Lorraine came home from grocery shopping. After Marianne left, Lorraine said she was fond of Marianne but was curious whether Marianne was Connell’s girlfriend. Connell responded evasively. At school the following day, when Connell’s male friends wanted to know whether he had slept with Marianne, he angrily denied doing so. They mockingly urged him to ask Marianne to the dance. In a bathroom, Connell remembered how Marianne told him he was a nice person. The thought made Connell throw up.
Connell and Lorraine visit his grandmother is in the hospital, where she was taken after a fall. During the drive home, Connell tells his mother that he asked Rachel to the dance. When Lorraine learns that he has not yet told Marianne he will not be taking her to the dance, Lorraine is livid and demands to be let out. She takes a bus the rest of the way home.
Four Months Later (August 2011)
When Connell told Marianne he was taking Rachel to the dance, Marianne stopped going to school, except to take exams. Marianne’s mother was furious with her, but when Lorraine came to clean, Lorraine was quietly supportive, telling Marianne that Connell did not deserve her. At this point, Marianne is not especially angry with Connell. He had sex with her and enjoyed it, even though she thinks at this point that he found her repulsive. Connell has to live with himself, she thinks.
Alan hears from a friend that Connell earned a perfect score on his exams. To humiliate Marianne, who scored just short of perfect, Alan gets Connell on the phone and offers him a chance to talk to her. Alan is surprised when Connell accepts, and then angry when Marianne refuses to take the call. Marianne does not care, because soon she will be starting a new life somewhere else, away from Alan and away from her mother, who ignores Alan’s abusive behavior.
Three Months Later (November 2011)
When Marianne left school in April, Connell became depressed. He was ashamed over how he had treated her, but she ignored his calls and text messages. Lorraine felt that Connell’s shame was deserved and told him so, but she also felt badly for him. Connell tried to distract himself with drinking, and by having sex with various girls including Rachel, but he did not enjoy the sex. One day, Connell learned that his friends had known he was sleeping with Marianne and did not much care. He had hurt Marriane and himself for nothing.
After Connell has been at Trinity a little while, he is invited to a party by a classmate named Gareth, whom Connell knows only slightly. Gareth’s girlfriend turns out to be Marianne, who has many friends at the party. Marianne greets Connell cheerfully and tells him she misses him. When Connell tells her that he dated Rachel for a while, but then they broke up, Marianne sounds nearly sincere in saying she is sorry. Their conversation is like old times. They talk about Gareth’s right-wing politics. Connell wants to apologize for how he treated Marianne, but something prevents him from doing so.
Three Months Later (February 2012)
Marianne attends an overnight party that Connell is at as well. After she gets drunk with two friends named Peggy and Joanna, Marianne learns that the girl Connell has occasionally been seeing is not at the party. Marianne approaches Connell, kisses him, and asks him for sex, but he politely declines. The next morning, during the ride back to school, when Marianne apologizes for her behavior, Connell tells her to forget about it. By this time, people in Marianne’s social circle have gotten to know Connell. Although he is popular with the women, the men think he is uninteresting. They are surprised when Marianne says Connell is smarter than she is.
After a game of pool that Connell wins in impressive fashion, he and Marianne go back to her apartment. He finally apologizes for how he treated her in their last spring at school, telling her that others knew they were sleeping together, and no one cared. After having sex twice, they fall asleep.
Two Months Later (April 2012)
Connell is covering his living expenses by working for the father of one of Marianne’s friends. A typical evening with Marianne consists of dinner, conversation about current events and social trends, and sex. A few days ago, however, she went home to Carricklea for a few days and came back in a dark mood. Marianne had fought again with her mother and brother, and a brief pregnancy scare had made her wonder about how her family and Connell’s would have reacted. When Connell replied that at the end of the day, her family would still love her, Marianne said nothing.
Connell arrives at Marianne’s place after she has had friends over. Peggy, drunk and the last to leave, asks whether Marianne and Connell are sleeping together. When Marianne confirms that they are but denies that they are “a couple,” Peggy suggests a threesome. Connell thinks to himself that sex with Peggy in front of Marianne is conceivable, but sex with Marianne in front of Peggy is out of the question. His relationship with Marianne is too private, too much a part of him. Marianne says she would be too self-conscious. After Peggy is gone, Marianne says she would have participated if Connell had wanted that. Connell tells her she should not do things she does not want to. It occurs to Connell that he could hit Marianne in the face, and she would let him. The thought makes Connell feel ill.
Three Months Later (July 2012)
After end-of-term exams, Connell moved back home for the summer. He and Marianne are no longer together, because he wanted to see other people—or at least, that is what Marianne thought he meant. Marianne felt like a fool, after telling everyone what a sensitive, intelligent person he was. Joanna, who is more thoughtful than any of Marianne’s other friends, puzzled earnestly over Connell’s behavior. Now Marianne is in Carricklea to attend a special Mass on the anniversary of her father’s death. While grocery shopping, Marianne runs into Connell and Lorraine, who after some polite conversation offer her a ride home. Connell drops Lorraine off at their house and then drives Marianne to hers. On the way, as Marianne and Connell talk, she apologizes for ignoring his messages and tells him she is dating Jamie, whom Connell remembers beating at pool five months ago. Connell declines to come into the house when dropping Marianne off, but tells her he plans to be at the Mass the next morning.
Six Weeks Later (September 2012)
Connell’s end-of-term move back home was set in motion when his work hours were reduced. Because he could not afford to pay his share of the rent over the summer, he wanted to ask Marianne if he could stay with her. His roommate, Niall, had already said that Connell’s room would still be there when Connell came back. However, Connell had always felt self-conscious about his financial circumstances compared to Marianne’s. When Connell told Marianne about having to move out of his apartment, she assumed he was going back home. Because she responded so coolly, he did not contradict her. Instead, he said, awkwardly, that she would probably want to see other people—a remark Marianne interpreted as reflecting his desire to do so. Connell was miserable afterward, and he continued to be miserable all summer. The night after the Mass for Marianne’s father, Connell got so drunk that when he met his old economics teacher, Miss Neary, he could barely fend off her advances.
At a coffee shop, Connell and Marianne catch up. She explains that a few weeks after Connell left for the summer, she started dating Jamie, whose family is extremely wealthy and whose father has made headlines with misdeeds in the world of finance. Marianne reveals to Connell that during sex, Jamie beats and chokes her. Jamie enjoys this practice, but it was Marianne’s idea. Connell is disturbed and frightened. Marianne tells him she likes knowing she is prepared to degrade herself for someone. She assures Connell that with Jamie, she is putting on an act, whereas for Connell, she really would do anything. Connell realizes that their friendship remains intact.
Four Months Later (January 2013)
When Marianne went home for Christmas, Alan called her pathetic and spat at her. Her mother dismissed Alan’s behavior as “a little sibling rivalry.” Now Marianne is with Jamie, Peggy and some other friends at her apartment. Connell calls to say that he has been mugged, has no money, and had to borrow a phone for the call. Marianne tells him to take a taxi to her place; she will pay for it. When Connell arrives bruised and bloodied, most of Marianne’s guests express concern and sympathy, then politely leave. Jamie is surprised that Marianne expects him to leave, too. When Connell and Marianne are alone, he urges her to find another boyfriend but then reveals that he is seeing someone—a girl named Helen, whom he loves. Marianne, to her embarrassment, begins to cry. Connell explains that Marianne’s breakup with him confused him, because when he mentioned leaving for the summer, he had hoped she would invite him to stay at her place. Marianne replies that he would have been welcome to stay with her.
Six Months Later (July 2013)
In Helen’s presence, Connell feels comfortable around other people. Although she is a little condescending in the way she teases him for being a “culchie” (a country boy), Connell tells himself that his relationship with Helen is normal—not strange and separate from the rest of the world, like his relationship with Marianne. After Helen got to know Marianne, she described Marianne to Connell as self-absorbed and a little slutty. This bothered Connell, but he still believed he belonged with Helen, not Marianne.
In April, Connell and Marianne both won university scholarships. For Connell, the scholarship meant he could afford to travel, and so while Helen is in Chicago for the summer, Connell is touring Europe. He, his former roommate Niall, and Niall’s girlfriend are on a train to Trieste, to join Marianne, Jaime, and Peggy at a cottage that belongs to Marianne’s family. Connell and Marianne have been exchanging long, intense daily emails—about their vacation experiences, international events, and many other topics. Connell puts a great deal of effort into his emails. He enjoys the writing process and has been working on some stories, too, but he has not shown them to Marianne yet.
At dinner in Trieste, Jamie becomes unpleasant after a few drinks, eventually following Marianne into the kitchen to provoke an argument. Connell walks in just in time to see Jamie deliberately break a wine glass. When Connell quietly takes Marianne outside and comforts her, he notices how thin she has become. That night, she sleeps in his room and tells him about her brother’s physical abuse and her mother’s indifference. She wonders why she cannot be like normal people. They begin to have sex, but she pulls away. Connell is ashamed that he would have taken advantage of her at that moment.
Five Months Later (December 2013)
Marianne has started a study year abroad, in Lund, Sweden. When she broke up with Jamie, he managed to get most of their friends to feel sorry for him. Only Joanna, who has always been nicer and more sensible than the others, sided with Marianne and kept in touch. Marianne is in a relationship with Lukas, a photographer who, like Jamie, is a sadist. He says humiliating things to Marianne during sex and requires her to wait for his permission before she showers afterward. Marianne does not enjoy the experience, but it produces a depression she finds tranquilizing.
Throwing away a half-eaten breakfast, Marianne goes up to Lukas’s loft for a photo session. The session begins with her taking her sweater off, then her bra. When Lukas prepares to tie Marianne’s wrists, she protests but submits. A blindfold follows. However, when Lukas declares that he loves Marianne and she loves him, she recoils in horror. She threatens to call the police, gets dressed, and leaves. Lukas is baffled. Outside on the sidewalk, Marianne wonders how someone could think that what Lukas was doing to her was an expression of love.
Three Months Later (March 2014)
At Trinity, Connell has been sinking into depression. One of Connell’s closest friends from his school days, Rob, committed suicide a few months ago, and Connell feels guilty over not staying in touch. Helen came with him to the funeral in Carricklea, but on seeing that Connell still had feelings for Marianne, who had come back from Sweden for the funeral, Helen grew jealous. Helen and Connell broke up soon after. Even apart from Rob’s suicide and the breakup with Helen, Connell hates his life at Trinity. The students are status-obsessed and generally much worse people than his former schoolmates. He also hears nasty things being said about Marianne, some of them coming from Jamie. Apparently there are kinky pictures of her on the internet, although he has not found them.
On Niall’s suggestion, Connell sees a counselor. After the counselor expresses concern over Connell’s responses on a diagnostic questionnaire, he pretends to her he will follow her recommendations. Connell has a more encouraging conversation after a book reading. The author who gave the reading is sympathetic when Connell admits to finding Trinity a hard place to fit in. Maybe, the author suggests, the experience will produce a story collection. Connell knows the author is joking, but it is a nice thought.
Four Months Later (July 2014)
For the first time since Marianne started at Trinity, she is living at home over the summer. Connell has a job in the college library but comes home every weekend. Recently, he and Marianne participated in a Dublin street protest together. During the drive back to Carricklea, Connell told her, matter-of-factly, that he loved her.
Marianne is watching an evening soccer broadcast with Connell in his bedroom. She tells him that his behavior at the club the night before bothered her. While they were dancing, she wanted him to kiss her, but he left to go have a smoke. Connell describes the incident as a misunderstanding and talks about how their relationship has been good for him. Hurt by his detached attitude, Marianne prepares to leave. Connell finally does kiss her, which leads to sex, but when Marianne asks Connell to hit her, he refuses. Feeling rejected and worthless, Marianne gets dressed and insists on walking home. As Marianne enters her house, Alan confronts her: he has heard about her relationship with Connell. When Alan follows Marianne upstairs and violently pushes open her bedroom door, it strikes Marianne in the face, breaking her nose.
Five Minutes Later (July 2014)
Minutes after Marianne leaves, Lorraine comes home. Having heard that a girlfriend of Connell’s from years ago is now pregnant, Lorraine questions Connell about his relationship with Marianne. He assures her that Marianne is not pregnant, but that if she were, he would not be the father. He does not know what else to say. When Marianne left, Connell stayed in his room and cried. He feels trapped, and the antidepressants he is taking do not change that. He has a power over Marianne that no one else does, and at the same time, she holds the only part of him he cares about. Yet their relationship, he thinks, has brought only confusion and misery.
Marianne calls: she has “tripped or something” and is injured. She accepts Connell’s offer to come over. Meeting her at the door and seeing Alan in the background, Connell realizes what happened, sends Marianne to wait in his car, and tells Alan that if he says anything bad to Marianne ever again, Connell will kill him. Alan, now scared and crying, says he understands. In the car, Connell promises Marianne he will not let something like that happen to her again.
Seven Months Later (February 2015)
Connell has overnighted at Marianne’s. As she brings him coffee in the morning, he apologizes for getting drunk the night before. Last year, a story of his was published in the campus literary magazine. This year, Connell is the editor. Sadie, who published Connell’s story the year before and shows more than a friendly interest in him, brought vodka punch to the launch party for the new issue. Connell drank so much punch that Marianne had to take him home and put him to bed.
As Marianne prepares to take a shower, she asks Connell about Sadie. He denies being interested in her, but he told Sadie something he has not shared with Marianne, namely that he applied to an MFA program in creative writing at a university in New York. When Marianne comes out of the shower, Connell is reading an email informing him that he has been accepted. Now he has to decide whether to go. Connell claims not to want to leave Marianne, but when he acknowledges that Sadie knows about the application, Marianne understands that Connell is, once again, feeling the need to break away from her. Soon, Connell begins to sound less sure of himself. He does not know what to do, he says, but will stay if Marianne wants him to. “You should go,” she replies. “I’ll always be here. You know that.”