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Saturday, April 13, 2024

“Normal People” review: It’s not like this with other books

The universal appeal of “Normal People” is captured both on paper, on screen 

What is it that is so fascinating and so engrossing about the 2018 bestseller “Normal People” by Sally Rooney? Recently adapted by the BBC and Hulu as a hit limited series, the popularity of Rooney’s sophomore work has skyrocketed over the past few months. But its rise to cultural relevance can’t only be attributed to the televised series — it’s the gentle nature of the novel, which focuses on myriad romantic stepping stones, that really swept the world. 

A central tenet of “Normal People” is the always overt, often heart-wrenching portrayal of vulnerability. At times, the book seems to squarely set its sights on the reader, invoking emotional, if not painful, relatability that might require you to stop reading for a moment. And Rooney masterfully illustrates this universal feeling through the pages of “Normal People,” most heavily with Marianne. 

Marianne is a fairly high-class and exceptionally smart young woman who grew up in the same small Irish town as Connell, a stoic classmate who enjoys reading and writing as much as football. Marianne doesn’t really care about power dynamics with teachers, the pecking order at school and, most notably, what other people think of her. She is staunchly and unapologetically herself. This confident veneer becomes brittle, however, when she begins to spend more time with Connell after a suggestive conversation after school.

Marianne is dynamic and full of depth in her opinions and thoughts, but that feeling of letting yourself go and of vulnerability becomes fully realized with Connell. She gives her entire self to him, although in the beginning it is simply in return for his physical affections. She even tells him, at an abandoned house behind their school, that he could literally, not figuratively, walk all over her if he so chose. What they have is special — strange perhaps, but deeply special. 

Connell, too, is not absent from this. Whereas the walls Marianne puts up are to defend herself from the attacks of her peers, Connell’s are there to isolate, to make sure he doesn’t fall prey to the same feelings Marianne so clearly has. But it’s all for naught — his walls come crumbling down once they begin to spend more time together, and especially when they both end up at Trinity College in Dublin. He begins to think of her incessantly. Marianne does the same, even while her social standing is rapidly climbing. 

And standing — both social and financial — play a hefty role in “Normal People.” Connell is the child of a single mother, a housekeeper who is elated when the premise of scholarship at Trinity is seized by her only son. Marianne is much more well off — her family lives in a mansion that Connell’s mother happens to housekeep for. The acquisition of a scholarship for Marianne is more of a testament to her intelligence than a financial aid. 

Their love is one that is weighed down by their standing in different ways. Marianne will never know what it is like to be from a background of lower wealth, and Connell will never understand what it means to be hated, seemingly for no reason, by those you call your peers. While one has material wealth, the other seems to hold a lot of social currency. Some of the most captivating parts of “Normal People,” however, are when these standings shift or criss-cross — when, suddenly, Marianne is the talk of the town at university or when Connell no longer has to be bothered by his expenses. This shows us different sides of the same people, and of the ever-changing dance they amble along over the years. 

Marianne and Connell’s emotional vulnerability is increasingly characterized by moments both gentle and callous as the work goes on. Their standings, cemented in many ways yet loose in many others, help them understand who and what they are. These two things lead to a realization between Connell and Marianne: It’s not like this with other people. Indeed, over the few years “Normal People” covers, with multiple other partners and circumstances, it never was the same with other people. The two have something much stronger than a normal romantic entanglement; they have an elevated sense that no matter what, they will be there for one another. And that faith, that deeply-rooted feeling of belonging to each other, is more worthwhile than, truly, anything else. 

Despite this unwavering faith being foreign but to a lucky few, the Irish author’s writing feels important to the reader. Her characters take on real experiences that one can’t help but empathize with, be it an anxiety-ridden social gathering or the superficial nature of a friend. These moments in life that we all know have the potential to make a story mundane. A young couple navigating life with their internal battles getting in the way of each other? Sounds familiar.

But Rooney is not familiar, at least not in her storytelling. You may relate to your favorite novel’s main character, but you haven’t read a book like this before. She has created Connell and Marianne, two complicated, even damaged lovers, more intensely than anything experienced on a TV show — except maybe for the rendition of the novel itself in televised form. 

After having had such a profound experience reading the book, the show’s adaptation was of concern. Did it need dramatization, or new plots? Would it be worse, if only slightly, like the on-screen versions of perfect novels often are? It took one episode to find the answer to these questions is a resounding no. 

The Hulu-produced program is remarkably as beautiful and gut-wrenching as the book. The setting below a gloomy west-European sky brings the poignancy of the novel to life. The perplexing characters prove equally as analyzed, somehow painting the backstory of even minor personas distinctly. 

The deep-dive into the psyche of her characters is perhaps Rooney’s biggest asset. The intimacy you build personally with the story is supported by that built between the main characters, who seem to only expose themselves fully when with one another. To become attached to a character is indication of a powerful narrative, but to relate and emote right alongside them requires the storytelling of an insightful and gifted writer. 

This translates to the show, where, in only 12 25-minute episodes, every necessary detail of their lives, both together and apart, is recounted so that Marianne and Connell’s painful romance shakes you as much as it does in the novel, as such doing it justice.

But the way you feel it isn’t quite the same. Whereas Rooney’s energetic prose fosters the intimacy we feel with the characters, the televised version of her story captivates us with brilliant actors who enrich our idea of them through idiosyncratic, if often faint, expression.

It captures every nuanced interaction, every subtle look and swift emotion that the supporting characters notice, but that only Connell and Marianne understand. The short series manages to not only highlight, but enhance the complexity of their relationship — the defining characteristic of the novel — including each fundamental moment that makes or breaks their dynamic. 

And while the joy of physically reading this novel cannot be recreated through the viewing experience, new joys are brought on by the story shown on film. Intricacies, like Marianne licking an ice cream cone as Connell speaks of her financial ignorance, aren’t held onto throughout a scene in the book. In the show, the Italian sorbet points to the ways her maturity masks a certain childishness which was mostly taken from her by a cold, fatherless family. In the book, we don’t pick all that up in a matter of seconds as we do in the series. 

No matter the medium, the story has made its mark by way of Rooney’s exquisite dedication to refined characters in “Normal People.” Connell and Marianne’s unparalleled love affair is one worth knowing, not just for the sake of a good read and (subsequent) watch, but for a chance to indulge in an intimate journey, which, if you’re lucky, you’ll be normal enough to navigate one day yourself. 

Written by: Allie Bailey & Ilya Shrayber — arts@theaggie.org


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