Rarely have I seen the sort of cultural dialogue that I saw post the release of Normal People in April 2020, when it was released in the UK. Based on Sally Rooney’s namesake book (which shot up to the top of the Bestseller’s list followed by Conversations With Friends, Rooney’s debut novel, also being adapted for television), the story follows Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) through the later years of their high-school, their years at college, and the post-collegiate restlessness, failing to be what one wished for oneself only years ago. It’s set in and around Ireland, with brief detours to sunny Italy and snowy Sweden.
Normal People gave BBC iPlayer their best week (21.8 million requests in the first 7 days), instagram accounts popped up, dedicated to Marianne’s bangs, and Connell’s chain (178k followers), booktubers decided to decode the book by reading every single book referenced in it. Edgar-Jones and Mescal have received widespread acclaim for their performances in this 12-part series, with Mescal being nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor at the 72nd Primetime Emmys.
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Described by New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal as an “more anthropological than literary”, the book and by extension the show have garnered an unusual attention among millennials. One, because it depicts millennials as is- refusing to make them into characters one can easily grasp. Conversations aren’t dialogues, and characters don’t become personalities. The class difference between Marianne and Connell is spoken about with a sincere openness, with both the capacity to be wrong and the willingness to be corrected. There’s a slipperiness to the narrative, where one scene isn’t designed to organically lead into the next. Exposition, as if not existing, there are entire stretches of silence that is both the absence of thought, and the suppression of it. You can see that if only the characters “spoke their mind”, so much of their problems would be solved easily. But that’s now it happens here, much like that’s not how it happens irl, what Rooney calls, “the friction between the inner life and the outer world.”
One of the most heartbreaking moments is when Connell wants to ask Marianne if he can stay with her over the summer, for he cannot afford the summer rent; he has been laid off. But he is afraid of imposing on her, afraid she doesn’t feel love for him in the way he does for her. They just stare at each other across the kitchen. Connel’s thoughts are of love and doubt, expressed as silence. He doesn’t ask, and instead moves back to his hometown to live with his mother. What’s lost is a summer of love.
Then, there’s the sex- restless, explicit, intimate, frequent, with equal-opportunity nudity. There’s BDSM- the physical and the emotional kind, a sort-of reflexive desire to hurt and be hurt. It’s never entirely sinister, but very tensely toes that line. Whether the sex scenes will be axed or edited for the Indian release is uncertain.
There has been criticism of the show, but it’s mostly been relative to the book – about the excessive beauty of the leads, and that in translating the words to vision, the messy characters of the book got an upgrade. Because beauty has a way of diluting faults, one couldn’t sense their thorny personalities as one should have. But we can’t be blamed for craving beauty, whitewashed of all the abrasiveness that reality provides anyways. And it isn’t like this is the ideal feel-good binge. It leaves you longing, uncertain, but comforted in that ephemeral, unsteady way, only millennial love can.