Why the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel is even more heartbreaking during lockdown
Warning: this contains spoilers!
BBC’s Normal People premiered last week to roaring praise. The response, from literary fans and binge-watchers alike, has been loud, as any piece of entertainment could be when appearing in the midst of a pandemic.
The affection was already there: Rooney’s best-selling novel was infectious. Flitting from tube carriages to coffee shop tables to uni satchels, people love the delicate yet intense narrative of two school-peers who fall into an on-again off-again love affair that spans their youth.
The two protagonists in the novel are Marianne and Connell, and the BBC screen-adaption tells their story, directed by the BAFTA nominated Hettie MacDonald and Oscar-nominated Lenny Abrahamson. With extremely talented, fresh-faced actors, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, this version had Rooney re-shuffle her poignant one-liners and sweet-natured intimacies into 30 minute bursts. It made sense that it has become one of the most attractive shows of the year.
The thing is, Normal People is more than a welcome distraction from everything. It reminds us of how we can best navigate the world right now. The point of the series, like the book, is less that there is one great relationship that can perfect our life. In fact, Connell and Marianne are not together the whole time. They – affectionately, and with great care – break up to study abroad and settle into adult roles post-graduation. In the end, despite Connell leaving and Marianne staying in Dublin, I like to think they continued to love each other.
“Normal People is more than a welcome distraction from everything. It reminds us of how we can best navigate the world right now.“
Normal People is a story about love and its way of expanding beyond petty conveniences like ‘right place’ and ‘right time’. It turns out it might never be the right time or the right place for Connell and Marianne, not even when they leave their rubbish exes or start to deal with their respective mental health issues in a non-toxic manner. And that’s okay.
Normal People illuminates the act of love as a revitalisation of the self, again and again. When Connell is too depressed to get out of bed, when Marianne thinks she deserves (not enjoys, deserves) to be hurt during sex; when they are in different cities, in different mind-sets, in different classes; they never consider that they should stop caring. And when they care about each other – as one another’s best friends, or carers, or teachers, or lovers – they also care about themselves.
They learn, in the act of being there for someone flawed, that they are themselves worthy of the same thing. Unconditional love is what renders the difficult and turgid small-town realities of Normal People incidentally beautiful.
In Episode 1, Connell, the most popular boy in school, chooses to sit next to Marianne – the ‘outcast’ – on the bus. The camera lingers close on the sides of their faces as they steal chuffed glances at each other, their timid smiles cast beautifully in the green tint of the woodland, and sunshine rushing by the window. Everything is okay.
“Normal People shows the very best and worst of human tendencies. Marianne and Connell are like anyone else: they have the same troubles, naiveties, and curiosities.“
Fast-forward to Episode 9, Marianne – half a continent away from Connell and speaking only through emails – takes a walk in the snow. On a close-up her eyes are bright, on a wide-shot she is a splinter of dark colour in a white wasteland of snow. She is small and physically isolated, as opposite as she could be from the heated enclosure with Connell on the double-seat of the school bus. But she knows, somewhere out there, he is reading her email: someone out there cares.
Normal People shows the very best and worst of human tendencies. Marianne and Connell are like anyone else: they have the same troubles, naiveties, and curiosities. They want to be close and near someone who truly knows them. For the length of the story, they are that person for each other. But they can’t be together forever, maybe not even for a fair length of time. They seem to know this, and carry on seeing each other despite it.
As the world protects itself by it drawing borders between ourselves and our favourite people, Normal People made me cry because it tells a love story that is so inconvenient, so time-scrambled, so desperate: two people with their arms outstretched, spinning round and round, never quite touching, but smiling for the thrill of the ride.
Rooney has been hailed as the voice of millennials by people more astute than me — all I know is that her story is a shining example of the most extraordinary, normal thing we can do: to care, even when things don’t align.
Many people enjoy this quote from the novel:
“No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”
Now is the best time in our lifetime to believe in that. As a future of intermittent quarantine and lockdown stretches out before us all, the answer is not to withdraw. There is a way to go forward with eyes and heart open. Like Marianne heading alone into the white snow: keep caring, and keep expecting to be cared about. It’s the last normal thing we have.
Watch the trailer for Normal People here or dive into the series on Hulu and BBC 3 iPlayer now.