“Most people go through their whole lives without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”
- Normal People // Sally Rooney
Relationships, tough love, loneliness, the fear of dying alone and whatnot. Humans are gregarious creatures who – no matter how introverted – need the proximity only another human can provide. Most of our celebrations include social gatherings and most of our punishments, solitary confinement. Beg to differ? Maybe. But for the most part, a need to be loved and cared for is shared by all of us, which is why we work so hard to make relationships work. Or else, we just don’t let the strings get attached. It’s either this or that most of the time, which makes relationships work. But if you say ‘no, people make it work even if it’s somewhere in between,’ I won’t go against you. Except this third way of making a relationship work requires hard work and the answer to a simple question. Do they matter to you or do they not?
What is ‘Normal People’ about?
Normal People is Sally Rooney’s second novel (after Conversations With Friends) which was first published in 2018. It was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It also became a TV show, which aired on Hulu this year.
Set in Ireland, Normal People is a bildungsroman which is all-eyes for the protagonists. While Connell is the popular star kid in high-school, Marianne is the proud, reserved freak. And yet, they have sides nobody knows of. They pretend not to know each other, but they start connecting when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house. And thus, just in the first few moments, Rooney exposes us to the class dynamics between the two. A year later in college, their conspicuous sides surface in an upside-down way. Connell finds himself isolated and Marianne opens up as she finds people she’s comfortable around. As they grow and discover themselves, they veer in and out of each other’s daily lives, not willing to either let go or get attached completely.
Why you should read/watch it? (Preferably, watch)
Number one. Electricity. Number two. Ireland. Like James Poniewozik puts it in his review for NY Times, “If the moony soundtrack doesn’t clue you in, you will need only a few seconds in the presence of Marianne and Connell, who have so much chemistry you may need lab goggles.” I would be disappointed if I haven’t sold you yet. But all the better for me if you’re not sold and hence, plan to read on.
This book has made it to my best reads list and even Sally Rooney is one of my favourite authors, now. As for the TV adaptation – I never thought I would ever say this – it is not only as good as the book but in some cases even exceeds it. Rooney is a master when it comes to portraying complex relationships. Her simple and thought-provoking narrative forces you to question what it means to be in a relationship. If love is the only thing which makes them work, then why do ‘normal people’ care so much about things like age, gender and class.
On the one hand, Rooney shows us that love and love alone can actually make certain relationships work, but on the other hand, she also shows the cost this beautiful and fragile thing asks from us. We have here two high-school kids who give in to their lust and have sex within the first few days of meeting each other. Possessing compatible intellects, the conversations come easy too. But what hit me like a revelation was this: how can two people with such indomitable electricity make out and talk, and not call it a committed relationship?
ALSO READ: ‘Politics of Sex in Normal People’ by The Guardian
This hits me when they leave high-school and meet at Trinity College as two completely different, brand new people. It becomes obvious that they never committed. This is when realism comes into play and both our protagonists explore themselves and the world around them. Connell isolates himself, spends time in the library reading Austen and tries to blend in with the crowd of Dublin. Marianne goes all wild and allows herself to experience a lot of things, the pleasure of self-harm being one of them. And yet, all this time both of them just cannot live in a way which does not affect the other. In the process, they endure hardships and hurt each other. They grow and evolve. But eventually, all their suffering makes them realize that what they have, ‘it’s not the same with other people.’
Normal People is a sad, summer romance with some disturbing scenes which leave a mark on you. But through the eyes of Connell and Marianne, Rooney addresses issues such as growing up, power dynamics in society, mental health, sexuality and equality in a relationship, etc. She questions what we perceive as normal and conventional when it comes to relationships. For me, it posed the question of whether relationships can work without a definition?
This is a difficult question to answer because managing expectations requires definitions. People need to be on the same page, they need to find some middle-ground. But then again, this contradicts the ethereal notion I do believe in, that love requires no labels. It is supposed to set you free. Except, Connell and Marianne tried to do away with definitions and that did not turn out to be good. So on a final note, I think for a review I can just say that if you love someone and care about them, communicate. Be honest with them about what you want and what they mean to you.
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The story of Connell and Marianne is sad, complicated, unconventional and incomplete; which is exactly what makes it so beautiful. I have often heard people say that Normal People isn’t for everybody. You’ll either hate it or love it. No in-between. But guess what? That’s what we’re dealing with here. An in-between. So, pick it up if you’re a sucker for aesthetic, imperfect and heartwrenching love stories.