Sally Rooney’s Normal People was one of my favourite books of last year and maybe even, of all time. The emotions I felt reading it, I can still get right back into even when I think of it now. So naturally I was quite apprehensive when I found out there was a tv show adaptation on the way. Especially since so much of the book is in the unsaid words, as the thoughts and feelings that the protagonists, Marianne and Connell, don’t voice are what propels much of the story. But I need not have been worried at all. It’s even more bloody brilliant than I could’ve imagined, pulled off in part I think by the wonderful actors that somehow show those inward emotions perfectly on screen. I’ve been a bit worried about the idea of trying to write about it because it’s far too brilliant for anything I write to possibly do it any sort of justice, but I’m sure there’s been enough glowing reviews from everyone going about that no one’s gonna need much more convincing. There is the odd review or piece I’ve seen trying to tell people their thoughts on normal people are wrong or that we’ve all “missed the point” which I find a bit strange. Isn’t the very point of stories that every reader and viewer can take something different from them? There’s no correct way to feel about a story, everyone feels something different depending on their own experiences which I think is the beauty of it all. Personally, I think it’s the most beautiful and well written story I’ve read in a long time with the most perfectly imperfect characters and the most heartbreaking chemistry which is only amplified on screen. With actors that actually look exactly as I think many people would’ve wanted from what they had already imagined of the beloved characters in the book. It is a book of longing and in no way a happy read, I guess it’s odd to say you loved or enjoyed a book that provides quite so much hurt and devastation. It causes so much tears but also so much wonder. It’s quite a strange one in that way.
The plot follows Marianne, who comes from a wealthy family but is a social outcast in school and faces deep emotional abuse at home, and Connell, who is working class and part of the popular crew. Connell’s loving and downright amazing mum (I love her no nonsense attitude) works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family and it is from this that Marianne and Connell embark on a secret relationship, with Connell spending much of his time fearing his friends might find out. Their powerful dynamic propels the story as it follows them through the years after high school and the many issues they face due to a frustrating lack of communication which is heightened by the ongoing conflicts around class and power that they face. It’s the same type of story as David Nicholls’ One Day as it follows two people as they go through life and similarly break my heart, however things are even more tangled in Rooney’s work. The characters are complicated in such an honest way, showing the multiple different contradicting parts we can have within our personalities which is especially rare to see of women in books or on screen. It allows for nuance, instead of the polarising sense that everyone is either a good guy or a bad guy, or that one person is simply privileged and another is not when in reality there are far too many different parts to life for it to be that simple. And just while we’re talking about the characters, my fringe has went through many transitions- although I’ve never once parted with having some sort of fringe, it’s there even in baby photos- but somehow none that have ended with it looking quite as good as Marianne’s does while at uni. I found myself fixating on the hair throughout, I think that’s the only time I’ve felt true envy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of people come out of this lockdown with newly cut bangs. I loved the clothes and her style as well, it was perfect, as was Connell’s silver chain which I know from Twitter left many weak at the knees and I may or may not have recently followed the Instagram account simply named, Connell Waldron’s chain.
It’s a story where not a lot happens but somehow everything happens. It’s got the most compelling character dynamic, there’s no way anyone could watch it and not feel something for the two of them. You’ll wish you could step in and do the speaking for them, maybe even yell TELL EACH OTHER HOW YOU FEEL, it would certainly save all the trouble but then where’s the story in that. It’s super sticky. I finished the book a year ago and I still thought on it often and well now after just finishing the show, I’m right back in it with anything and everything coming back to Normal People. I know a lot of people binge watched it but I forced myself to have some restraint as I knew I’d regret it, so I only watched a couple episodes a night. And I’m glad I did as it was still over too soon. It’ll spark so many thoughts about everything from sex and power dynamics to class and the freedom that money brings. Rooney writes a deeply saddening but important portrayal of the long term affects of emotional abuse, and also the often debilitating fear and panic that comes with not knowing who you are and what you want which can be leave a person incredibly stuck. And it is a great reminder of the need for kindness, empathy and feeling understood, as without such connections people can struggle to survive, never mind thrive. One random little thing I will say is that the words “normal people” together do remind me of that phase when everyone was obsessed with American Horror Story: Murder house and in turn everyone’s dream (big problematic question mark around that one) boyfriend, Tate Langdon, and the phrase “normal people scare me” was on everything from jumpers to phone cases and I bet someone out there got it tattooed. I wish that hadn’t been so sticky in my brain. Back to the normal people that don’t scare me though, I’d like to confirm the show does in fact do the story justice and stays very faithful to the book. It’s made up of short 30 minute-ish episodes which I think was a lovely way to do it by just giving us perfect lil snack sized moments of their life. The sound track was great and I now can’t get Only You by Yazoo out my head. The show somehow feels niche and yet universal all at once, so basically anyone can fall in love with the story so if you’ve read this far and haven’t decided to go watch it yet, may I ask why (the heck) not? And just while I’ve remembered the woman that complained that it was like watching a porno, I’d just like to say that if the teens are watching that for their porn we should be pleased because that consent scene was just *chef’s kiss* so lovely and it would be amazing if everyone was using that for some sex ed. As well as this, from what I’ve read of interviews with the actors, due to the intimacy coordinator that they had to make sure everything was clear and that they were in control this made it far more empowering and un-exploitative to film the sex scenes (which I really think should be standard on all sets by now) AND there was actually equal nudity rather than it being all from the male gaze.
I’m not really sure if this has been a review of the book or the tv show at this point it’s all just a mess of my adoration for both. If you haven’t yet read the book, whether you’ve watched the show or not, I’d still recommend going back and reading it. The writing is just something else. Rooney’s other book, Conversations with Friends was also a hit and although I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Normal People, it was also rather impactful and is apparently in talks to get made into a tv show by the same people. I feel as if all of Rooney’s writing can leave you feeling like you’ve had a blow to the chest. Marianne and Connell are a reminder of the possibilities love opens us up to and the wonderful, often transforming feeling of being truly seen by another human being. I adore them. Apparently Sally Rooney has been busy writing her next novel, and I’ve no doubt that it’ll knock the wind out of everyone who reads it, leaving us all lying there thinking deeply about it all once again.