You should read Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’

Film and literature are different mediums, and I go to them for different reasons. As a person, my countenance is overwhelmingly stoic. While I have visceral emotional reactions to the actions of others, I am also capable, unfortunately of emotionally dissociating myself from my feelings while they are happening, sifting through them for veracity and discarding the parts of my emotional response to the actions of others that don’t benefit me. The few people who have experienced this in real time have described it as terrifying. But literature and film allow me to embrace the full range of emotions felt by the character, to immerse myself fully in their lives and feel as they feel. I am not particular about what medium I first encounter a work in, but more often than not adaptations pale in comparison to written work. 

I first encountered Sally Rooney on a Buzzfeed list. Her debut novel had received praise for its deft storytelling and Rooney’s peculiar ability to talk about normal life in ways that fully enthralled audiences. The last Irish writer who had received this kind of acclaim was Eimar McBride, and when I had read her debut novel, nearly a decade in publishing purgatory before it was finally picked up, I was sorely disappointed. Mc Bride’s story was compelling, but the prose was gimmicky and it took too much effort to read. A lot of the early praise around Rooney’s debut novel emphasized the ‘normalness’ of Conversations With Friends, rather than the compelling characters, or the unique circumstances of the plot. 

Then early 2018, buzz began to gather around Normal People, Rooney’s sophomore novel. The superlatives were trotted out, ‘Best Book of 2019’ among them. One thing stood out to me then, Normal People was about two young people, navigating an intense and somewhat dysfunctional relationship and how the power dynamics in their relationship shifts as each person grows and changes. I had struggled for most of 2019 with reading and writing original work, so I put her on my to-read list and tried to wade through the detritus that was my life that was year. Then in early 2020, Hulu released the first season of the film adaptation, 6 hours of torrid love. Fareeda, with whom I share many of my artistic inclinations, asked that I watch it, even though she warned she couldn’t get past the first 6 episodes. Then Mofe, with whom my interactions are more primal and present, also recommended it. He’d watched the show and was about to start the book. He insisted, so I found all 12 episodes and committed a weekend to losing myself in its dreamy, yellow tinted world. 

 

There’s something truly magical about Sally Rooney’s novel that is completely lost in adaptation. Granted, I watched the adaptation first, and I found its pacing torturously slow, yet too intense. I found myself forwarding through huge swaths of the conversations between Marianne and Connell, and then pausing to rewind and rewatch those huge swaths for context. Both actors do a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life and the chemistry  between Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal burned with the intensity of a supernova. But by the final episode when a major life event causes Marianne and Connell to re-examine the strength of their relationship, I weep for their relationship, but I don’t fully believe the turn of events that have led them there. 

There are many challenges with the scripting, directing and casting that damage the authenticity of the television series. The first is  ‘Adaptational Attractiveness’, a concept explained by Trope Anatomy. The basic premise of Adaptational Attractiveness is that film as a medium, is predominantly concerned with profit, and profit is determined by who you have leading your visual project. Daisy Edgar Jones is visually stunning, her dimpled jaw and almond eyes are utterly convincing. She seems to bristle with intensity she can barely rein in as protagonist Marianne, that we have absolutely no reason to disbelieve that Paul Mescal as an equally attractive Connell would fall deeply, madly, in love with her. As a result, Marianne is nothing like the character in the books, neither in her physical presentation or in her attitude. Neither is Connell, whose cruelty is softened by his attractiveness. We are never really repulsed by his actions, or by Marianne’s demeanour, neither stray too far from conventional attractiveness to truly embody the characters they portray.

 

There is also, the robust internal lives of both characters that are sacrificed on the altar of adaptation. Marianne and Connell are both in a state of constant flux, a state of being that is as much influenced by their perceptions of the world, as it is by their social standing in their small town. Their identities shift as their social dynamics change, but we understand why, because Connell and Marianne are always thinking, always debating within themselves, the merit of their actions, the authenticity of their convictions. All of this is lost in the film adaptation, especially the true nature of their collective social standing. By the final scene of the film adaptation, the many social barriers that inform Connell and Marianne’s decisions are erased, so the pivotal twist, a moment that changes that lives of one of the characters, feels as pedestrian as any of the other challenges they have faced in their relationship, rather than an irreversible moment widening the ever growing chasm between them. 

After I watched the show, I wasn’t motivated to read the novel. I feared that perhaps, because Rooney had been personally involved in adapting the book, Lenny Abrahamson (who directed the heart wrenching Room) had directed, and the show runners had twelve episodes to explore the many nuances of the source material, reading the book would be doubly disappointing. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

I finished Normal People in two sittings of 3 hours each, taking a 6 hour break between my first and second readings because my heart hurt too much. The critics had been right. Rooney had written a book that was deceptively simple on the surface, but asked many pertinent, painful questions about the nature of youth, the power of obsession, and how our families shape us in ways we can never fully understand. Book Marianne and Connell wield cruelty with as much ease as they do compassion, to each other and to everyone around them. They explore consent outside of sexual situations, what is permissible and what is forbidden when sex, the barometer with which we traditional explore relationships already carefully negotiated. This oscillation between cruelty and compassion builds through the entire book, as does the emotional and social disconnect between Connell and Marianne. 

Marianne can never understand why Connell, while brilliant, is afraid to dream, to pursue ambition. She seems unable to truly understand why he constantly returns to the safety of Sligo, the small town where they grew up. For Marianne, Sligo only holds hurt, hurt amplified by the privilege that was supposed to protect her from hurt, but instead isolated her, at school and at home. Her privilege gave her safe passage away from Sligo to Trinity and eased her passage into her new life. But it was also the one tether to her old life that  her many reinventions of self couldn’t quite detach. Connell and Marianne are familiar to each other, but they also do not understand each other at all. That misunderstanding is simultaneously personal and cultural. They feel familiar to each other, so they fall into familiar patterns of sex and obsession and painful uncouplings that happen over and over, seemingly beyond their control. I don’t know if Sally Rooney ever listened to Mitski’s ‘Two Slow Dancers’, but the soupy, saccharine sadness of the Japanese American singer’s ballad seems to telegraph the doom that envelops Marianne and Connell’s relationship and the loneliness they both seem to feel together and apart. By the time they reach their final test, we understand why they choose what they choose, even though it is devastating to watch them come to their shared resolution.

 

A lot of African literary fiction involving young people revolves around characters either living with or trying to divest themselves of the consequences of events outside their control. A senior brother who goes missing, a civil war that warps parents, a political coup that causes an economic recession. I have always been fascinated with the point when our own choices, often in mid to late adolescence, forks that path that we and our families share and starts our own journeys into adulthood. The young adult characters in these novels often have their actions corrupted by or twisted to serve the novel’s looming central plot device, nothing they do can be attributed solely to them. The relationship between Marianne and Connell in the book is isolated in such a way, that their actions towards each other, kindness and cruelty, is motivated by their insulated relationship with each other and influenced by their complex internal lives. I envied this in her work, her ability to imbue these private moments with immediacy and intensity, to map out the long term consequences of each action on their collective life together. It affirmed that Anthems, the story I’d written of a teenage girl, trying to make sense of a life fracturing in spite of her best efforts, had an audience out there that would resonate with it, and her. 

I wasn’t quite sure what this would be when I started writing it. I am skeptical about reviews, and abstract essays seem like personal vanities. But I felt compelled to share how I felt about Normal People, because Rooney’s novel bears some kinship to many ideas I have about literature, especially about how we must learn to believe that the lives of young people, even ‘normal’ ones,  are complex and glorious enough to demand of our time and our ingenuity as writers. To quote Hillary Kelly, ‘it is the story of the moment when adulthood begins, and when choices start to matter’. 

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