By the time I’d bought Sally Rooney’s Normal People in April last year, it had already been chosen as Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2018, and one of my good friends had been badgering me to pick it up myself as she’d loved it so much.
However, I felt exhausted when I finally closed the pages of Normal People, and while I think it’s true that there can be a wrong time to read a book (I was feeling very low at the time), I’ve had no desire to re-read Rooney’s novel since. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t enjoy it. The recent TV series cemented this for me, precisely because it is such an excellently accurate adaptation.
The problem with reading and watching Normal People, for me, was that it was compelling, but in no way rewarding; I’ve never been so frustrated with two main characters and their lack of communication.
Normal People centers around Marianne and Connell from County Sligo in Ireland, who begin a secret sexual relationship during the final years of school, and then continue to have an on/off relationship well into their university years.
In school, Marianne and Connell aren’t in the same friendship group and operate on different social planes. Connell plays on the school’s sports team, is well-known and part of the ‘popular’ group, whereas Marianne doesn’t have any close friends and is generally alienated despite her intelligence and rebellious attitude. The fact that Connell and Marianne’s relationship is kept private is understandable, initially. They’re both still relatively young, and having to navigate through the social ranks at school to confess to a connection they both don’t yet understand is daunting.
However, when that connection deepens, school ends and the dreaded ‘I love you’ has been said, it still doesn’t seem to give Marianne or Connell a desire to speak more openly about their relationship, either between themselves or to others.
I felt an affinity with the characters of Lorraine, Connell’s mum, and Niall, his friend and housemate at university, who both seem perplexed at Connell’s defensiveness and hostility whenever they ask after Marianne; it’s like he doesn’t want to have to admit she’s a significant part of his life. Additionally, Peggy, Marianne’s friend at Trinity, states that Marianne and Connell make a ‘cute couple’, but Marianne quickly dispels that, which then leads Peggy on to a clearly uncomfortable discussion (on Marianne and Connell’s part) about exclusivity and threesomes. Even after Peggy leaves and Marianne and Connell are left alone, the word ‘couple’ seems to hang in the air but no confrontation of the subject ensues.
There are no speech marks throughout Rooney’s novel and for me, this emphasises the lack of verbal communication between Marianne and Connell; their feelings for each other may be strong but they just don’t translate verbally. Nothing of huge significance is voiced in order to eliminate the strain in their relationship and for it to progress healthily. I think the TV series helped in conveying a more tangible connection between the two characters in terms of their body language and sexuality, but watching it, I was still asking myself the same question as when I was reading the book:
Are they really meant for each other or not?
There is absolutely no denying that Marianne and Connell have something, and there are times when they ‘get’ each other without the need for words — for instance, early on when Marianne is upset by being groped in the nightclub and Connell judges correctly that she wants to be taken home, and further on, when they’re apart and Marianne comforts Connell by suggesting they continue their video call overnight so he can eventually fall asleep after experiencing a bout of insomnia.
Nevertheless, it’s in the moments where communication is needed that their relationship ultimately fails and leads to a breakdown of understanding. For example, when Connell loses his job in Dublin during the university summer break and has to go back home, he wants to stay with Marianne, but she doesn’t pick up that sense from him. This then results in another breakdown of communication and more time away from each other, thus creating further distance and hostility. If they were really meant for each other, would this be happening?
They are obviously sexually compatible — and I want to take a moment to say that the sex scenes in the BBC Three series are some of the most honest and real that I’ve seen on-screen, from both film and TV. There are no cutaway shots, clever angles to hide the actors’ flesh or cliché fade-to-black effects; we see each small moment as authentic, even if it’s awkward. Marianne repeats “it doesn’t feel like this with other people” to Connell, and we believe her — but the couple’s lack of articulation even bleeds into their sex.
This is most evident when Marianne asks if Connell would want to hit her. I think this stems from the insecurity leftover from the dom/sub relationship she pursued with Lukas in Sweden. In this moment, Marianne’s worried that Connell will say yes, he does want to hit her, in which case she would sink comfortably back into her self-hate. Connell’s reaction to her question is almost one of revulsion, which, instead of relieving Marianne of her fear, makes her feel ashamed for even broaching the subject and once again results in her running away from the situation. I can’t help thinking that if they’d discussed Marianne’s relationship with Lukas, they’d be able to navigate through their sexual experiences better and eliminate feelings of shame or discomfort by establishing suitable boundaries.
I think what draws a lot of people to Normal People is the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ aspect, but in my opinion, this aspect is abused; it becomes traumatic for both Marianne and Connell and it became tiring to me. I found myself frequently asking if I really cared if Marianne and Connell ended up together or not. Their relationship becomes toxic because of their constant back-and-forth and it baffles me that so many people can find that attractive or desirable.
There’s also a theme of forbidden love running throughout which is founded on the fact that Marianne and Connell used to keep their relationship secret. They never seem to fully mature from that or break free of that mindset and this plagues their connection senselessly. I think a lot of emphasis is also put on the fact that they come from different backgrounds and family upbringing, which seems like a trifling obstacle. The only thing holding Marianne and Connell back is themselves, which brings me to the subject of mental health.
Sally Rooney handles the portrayal of mental health beautifully in Normal People, as do Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in their nuanced performances, and I think the issues Connell and Marianne face have a huge impact on the progression of their relationship.
After the death of his childhood friend Rob, Connell’s anxiety spirals out of his control, and I found his therapy scene, in both the book and in the series, incredibly compelling. It was refreshing to read about and to see a man willingly go to a therapy session and try to understand the complexity of his emotions. In this scene, Connell seems to be struggling to know what he meant to Rob, and because he feels alienated due to the fact that he has never been able to really ‘click’ with anyone, he’s afraid he’s never going to have a real impact on anyone else’s life. This, I think, is why he worries whether he and Marianne’s connection has longevity.
Equally, Marianne is also troubled with the tangibility of their connection. She doesn’t tell Connell everything about her time in Sweden but she does allow him a glimpse of her feelings of disassociation, by explaining over email how she feels ‘outside of [her] own life somehow’, detached and ‘shocked that anyone can actually see [her]’. It’s as if Marianne wants to disappear into insignificance; the depletion of her self-worth (also reinforced by her emotionally abusive brother) may mean that she’ll never feel good enough for anyone, let alone Connell.
There are many moments of regression mental health-wise for both characters, which, while completely realistic — not everything is linear and there are always setbacks on the road to recovery — affect the plot, because we never really see a huge breakthrough from either character, there’s no epiphany moment where Marianne and Connell finally realise that their insecurities aren’t so dissimilar and that they have the potential to lift each other up and overcome them.
I like finishing a novel or a series knowing that the characters have experienced a shift, or a significant change has been made. However, at the end of Normal People, I felt a tension again, like the same kind of thing we’d seen before would happen; Connell would go to America and then Marianne would decide to be with someone else, and the cycle would repeat itself. I found the ending of the series to be more upsetting than the book because visually I could see a deep tenderness between Marianne and Connell, but again I found myself wondering whether they truly loved each other, especially on Marianne’s part, as she didn’t take up Connell’s offer of joining him in New York but also didn’t give a specific reason for wanting to stay in Ireland instead.
I don’t always expect a happy ending from a story, but I think this one falls flat without it. Ultimately, I think my frustration with Normal People is that —while I can appreciate its complex and intimate narrative — as a reader and a viewer, there’s no pay-off for investing so much time in these two characters, whose relationship still doesn’t feel fully formed or entirely healthy by the book/TV series’ conclusion. Here are two people who, if they focused on some self-love and improving their communication, could potentially work and flourish as a couple. Unfortunately, we can only wonder.
Thanks for reading.
What did you think of Normal People? Am I completely wrong and want too much from these characters, or did you feel the same? How does your perception of a healthy relationship impact on your reaction to the events of the story? Do you now follow Connell’s chain on Instagram..? Good or bad, let me know your thoughts!