In light of a New Year’s resolution to rediscover the love for reading I had as a pre-teen, I decided to start looking for accessible reads to tackle in 2021. I had watched the BBC Three and Hulu series “Normal People” when it came out in the spring of 2020 and found the raw realism of the romance refreshing.
A few weeks ago, I read the book, which was first published in 2018 by Irish novelist Sally Rooney. Surprisingly, there is little distinction between the heart-wrenching love story on paper and on-screen.
Rooney is a 29-year-old author and screenwriter, who has earned both critical and commercial success since her debut novel “Conversations with Friends” in 2017. Rooney has been hailed as “the first great millennial novelist” for her ability to make readers think deeply and feel intensely about their fragile humanity and relationships.
Apart from novels, Rooney also writes poetry and short fiction. I recently read and listened to a recording of her 2019 short story “Color and Light” in The New Yorker’s fiction section, which is a good 30-minute inclination of what Rooney’s writing style and characters are like.
“Normal People,” in just approximately 260 pages, is a worthy and popular read, with a cult following and current rating of 3.86 on Goodreads. The novel was also longlisted with 12 other novels for the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
The story of “Normal People” follows the strong-headed Marianne and introspective Connell, and the development of their delicate relationship from naive secondary school students in a small town in County Sligo, to grown and complicated young adults in the urban and intellectually rich Trinity College in Dublin.
The novel’s chapters span a timeline of four years, from January 2011 to February 2015. Seeing how much Marianne and Connell evolve in this relatively short time frame gives incredible insight into how formative a university can be in character building.
Despite clear differences in their personalities, economic backgrounds and dreams, Marianne and Connell respect each other enough to frequently disagree and also find common ground. Their relationship is by no means easy — they support, challenge and often even hurt one other. Their enduring appreciation and acknowledgment of their respective strengths and flaws are what grips at readers’ hearts.
The two intelligent more-than-friends navigate the changing world around them and find their way back to each other at various stages of their youth. Rooney has a remarkable way of getting inside her characters’ minds, and the fluid prose keeps you intrigued to know how Marianne and Connell choose to act on their emotions.
Rooney’s protagonists have honest discussions of everything from politics and socio-economic class, to mental health and sex and intimacy. The sincerity and love behind the very human interactions in “Normal People” help readers become genuinely invested in Marianne and Connell’s relationship and individual well-being.
The book reflects and refers to many of Rooney’s personal, literary and intellectual interests. For instance, Rooney identifies as a Marxist and is unafraid of interweaving her political ideas into her stories. In “Normal People,” she includes discussions of current affairs, and talks of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s “The Communist Manifesto” and Jane Austen’s “Emma,” where love and class are inextricably tied to one another.
The Atlantic’s Annalisa Quinn said, “In 'Normal People,' characters have different things at different times: money, social capital, looks. The novel suggests the possibility of a setup in which these advantages are shared and redistributed according to need. Call it a Marxism of the heart.”
The 12 short episodes of the television series stayed true to the book, which could be credited to Rooney’s participation in writing the first half of the show. Marianne and Connell are played by two talented and young Irish actors, 22-year-old Daisy Edgar-Jones and 24-year-old Paul Mescal. “Normal People” succeeds at celebrating love as a transformative and sometimes painful force in life’s complex narrative.
The on-screen chemistry between Jones and Mescal as Marianne and Connell was palpable. Many people were first struck by the genuine seriousness of how sex is portrayed as a part of the show’s storyline.
In an interesting article for The New York Times titled “‘Normal People’ Takes Sex Seriously,” Eleanor Stanford wrote how the depiction of sex in "Normal People" differs from other mainstream media. Stanford also writes about the role of an on-set intimacy coordinator to fulfill the plot’s promise of “emotional and physical vulnerability” and ensure that actors were comfortable throughout the filming process.
The show was received well by audiences and critics alike, with three Primetime Emmy Award nominations last year and three more for the upcoming Critics' Choice Television Awards. Younger audiences were enamored with Connell’s glimmering silver chain in the show, and an Instagram account devoted to the accessory went viral soon after the show was released in April 2020.
Ultimately, both the novel and the show are not time-consuming and leave readers and viewers in a flurry of thoughts and emotions once they are done. I wish I had read the book first and would recommend reading the novel before watching the show as it contains better and more intricate details on both characters and their decision-making processes.
The show does justice to the book and is a must-watch, but the world of “Normal People” is best captured on paper and leaves you wanting more.