Normal People (and better-than-normal boozy, caffeinated milkshakes)

The book: Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Even though the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction has been announced, I am still reading some of the long-listed books. Most recently, I read Normal People by Sally Rooney. Normal People is the story of two young adults, Marianne and Connell, who share an intimate but secret relationship in high-school, and are never quite able to let each other go.

Normal People is a novel that is driven by its characters. The characters are complex, heartbreaking, and frustrating – or, in other words, painfully realistic. The most frustrating and heartbreaking character is Marianne, who deals with her internalized pain by entering into risky relationships. Watching her make one harmful decision after another was so painful, but I had to keep rooting for her and reading to see if she would recognize or address the deeper issues.

Also heartbreaking and frustrating to read were the tensions that arose between Marianne and Connell, because they could have been resolved so easily with just slightly better communication. In fact, the theme of communication comes up repeatedly throughout Normal People. From Connell and Marianne becoming closer each time one of them shares deeply personal information, to their completely unnecessary fights over perceived intentions, Normal People shows the importance of good communication in a healthy relationship.

Normal People also provides a lot of commentary on relationships and dependence. Throughout the novel, I questioned the healthiness of the various relationships that were depicted. Some of the relationships are clearly unhealthy, while others are more ambiguous. Ultimately, I think this novel shows that no relationship is perfect, and that the timing of a relationship plays a major role in whether it will work: two people can be wrong for each other at certain points in their life, but still have a healthy relationship later on, and vice versa.

Normal People is a completely engrossing read, and it can easily be binged in a single-day. Parts of this novel are heartbreaking, yet the story is so compelling and addictive. The only times I put this book down were to process the emotions that it made me feel (and also sometimes to cry, because it really made me feel things).

The bake*: boozy hazelnut latte milkshakes

*this recipe does not actually involve baking

Two foods that appear throughout Normal People are coffee and alcohol. Because of this, I decided to make something that would incorporate both. And because I’m apparently going through a milkshake phase right now, I decided to incorporate them in the form of a spiked hazelnut latte milkshake.

I didn’t follow a recipe for this milkshake; I kind of just experimented until I liked the taste and consistency. Here are the ingredients I ended up using (to make two small-ish servings):

  • 1 cup vanilla ice cream
  • 1/2 cup oat milk
  • 1 teaspoon espresso powder
  • ~2 tablespoons hazelnut liquer (optional)
  • Pinch of cinnamon

After that I topped with whipped cream and espresso powder, mostly for aesthetic purposes. The milkshake had a great hazelnut-coffee flavor, and I honestly couldn’t taste the alcohol in it (which could be good, or dangerous, or both). I guess you could say it tasted…normal! Just kidding! It is better than normal 🙂

(a raspberry mocha cake that isn’t) Hard to Love

The book: Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper.

I am currently going through a non-fiction phase, and Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper was the first book I read as part of this phase. Hard to Love is a compilation of essays, each of which tackles the topic of love in its various forms. Hopper writes about friendships, sisterhood, and the ways in which these bonds can form.

Hard to Love is a joy to read because Briallen Hopper is an exceptional writer. She is able to articulate her perspectives so well that, by the end of the book, I almost felt as though I knew her. Because Hopper expresses her points of view so eloquently, it is easy to empathize with her. Even when I didn’t necessarily agree with Hopper, I was able to consider new perspectives with so much more compassion. For example, in the chapter “Hoarding,” Hopper defends the practice of hoarding as a means of remembering others by holding on to their physical possessions. I doubt I’ll ever be pro-hoarding, but after reading this essay I no longer feel much negative judgment toward those who do hoard.

In addition to being beautifully written, Hard to Love is refreshing. Our society places so much value on romantic love that other types of love are often-overlooked, despite being equally (if not more) important. In “Lean On,” Hopper argues that it is okay to be dependent on friendships, explaining how she “learned to practice mutual, broadly distributed leaning: to depend on care that was neither compulsory nor conditional” with her friends. In “Young Adult Cancer Story” and “Coasting,” she writes about being part of a close-knit friend-group that formed over a mutual friend’s cancer diagnosis. In “Dear Octopus” and “On Sisters,” she discusses how familial relationships are complex, yet “sustain [themselves] through things that can end or prevent intimate friendships.”

All Hopper’s essays are thoughtful and gorgeously written, but my personal favorites were “Lean On” and “Tending My Oven,” probably because both instantly resonated with me. I loved “Lean On,” because it perfectly expressed my own love for constructing and maintaining meaningful “friendship shells” and “structures of togetherness” with others. “Tending My Oven,” an exploration of why people bake, at times felt like it was written for me (I know that it wasn’t): in this essay, Hopper explains how baking can both “[allow us] to be warm and sweet in a world that so often isn’t, and provide “a space of authenticity and generosity.” These were the chapters that resonated with me the most, but let me reiterate that all of Hopper’s essays are wonderful – even her ideas that don’t resonate with everyone are very thoughtfully written.

By the way, you can read the essay “Lean On” on Longreads!

The bake: (four-layer) raspberry mocha cake

As I mentioned above, Hopper’s essay “Tending My Oven” – an exploration of the practice of baking – strongly resonated with me. In addition to examining the reasons why some people love to bake, Hopper writes about her own favorite things to bake (which include apple bundt cake, chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter cream cheese frosting, and berry shortcake). Of all the baked goods Hopper mentions in “Tending My Oven,” the one that intrigued me most was “Seven-Layer Insomnia Cake with Bitterness Buttercream Frosting.” So I decided to make my own version of it.

To pay tribute to “insomnia,” I made my cake coffee-flavored (as coffee usually exacerbates my own tendency toward insomnia). I followed this recipe from my name is yeh, leaving out the cardamom. To pay tribute to “bitterness,” I modified the recipe’s frosting to be less sweet, and I added about 1 tbsp cocoa powder since dark chocolate, like coffee, is delightfully bitter.

The final cake: two layers of coffee cake separated by mocha buttercream frosting and raspberry jam, and covered in more mocha buttercream frosting.

The recipe that I followed yields two 9″ round cakes, and I ended up being too afraid to slice the cakes into thinner layers. So I merely sandwiched them with a layer of mocha buttercream frosting and a layer of raspberry jam in between. Then I frosted the whole thing with more mocha buttercream. So my cake has either two, four, or five layers depending on what you consider to be a “layer” in the context of cake. I consider both the frosting and jam in between the two cakes to be their own layers.

Regardless of the number of layers, this cake is great. The coffee flavor is strong, and well balanced by the raspberry jam filling. Also, because the cake is made with canola oil, it doesn’t dry out quickly. The best thing about this cake, however, was that I got to share it with coworkers, allowing me to be “warm and sweet” and to express “authenticity and generosity.”