I first encountered Sally Rooney’s Normal People last year when I received it for my birthday. Like many, I had heard of its success and was excited to read it.
The first time round, I enjoyed the story but felt dumbfounded as to why it had such success. To me, it was your average love story with a fair amount of teenage, first love dramas. When the TV series aired on the BBC, I decided to give the book another go. This post will be reviewing the book and TV adaptation.
About the book
Normal People is Sally Rooney’s second book, published in 2018. It immediately received international acclaim, with selling 64,000 copies in the first four months in the US alone. It went on to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, won the 2018 Costa Novel Award and became the Waterstones Book of the Year. So it’s pretty fair to say in the literary world it has done well.
Reviewing the Book My rating: ★★★☆☆
My first reaction when finishing this was a resounding, “meh.” It’s possible that because I was super aware of all the hype (which has only gotten worse) I had high expectations. I genuinely liked the story and got enjoyment out of reading it, however, I failed to see why every person under the sun was raving about it.
I re-read this earlier on in this month and this time round I hoped I would get more out of it. Spoiler alert – I didn’t really.
I found the relationship between Marianne and Connell problematic from the start, not because they are so different from one another, but purely how they react to their relationship. The way they both feel the need to cover up the relationship is beyond me. Yeah I get it, maybe if you are about thirteen years old it might be awkward, and you might worry about what your friends think, but they’re meant to be far more mature at this point as they’re applying for university. So what if your friends make fun of you?
And in later years at university, their lack of communication astounds me. If they are each others soulmates, why do they constantly do things that stand in the way of their relationship – like agreeing to see other people for instance. ??? They never sit down and have this conversation and it’s so frustrating and boring to see their relationship go up and down like a yo-yo.
I appreciate the attempt at creating complex characters, I still don’t know what to make of Marianne, and Connell in a sense, was far more likable. He was more down to earth and in touch with his emotions. But they both frustrated me and so did their relationship. I find the premise of them being “normal people” nonsensical. Firstly, because they both attend the top University in Ireland and they are more intelligent and well read than your average student.
Secondly, because of their situation. Connell’s Mum is employed as a cleaner in Marianne’s mansion and for most people, this isn’t really how you meet the love of your life. They are far from normal – and this portrayal of the type of love they have, the relationship they share, and their situation is not the average scenario. If Connell was so in love with her – why didn’t he say so with more force? Why did he poodle around with Helen for so long? And Marianne, with people who were no good for her.
The book is told in third person perspective which uses no dialogue and little punctuation. The narration switches between Marianne and Connell during their up and down relationship. This perspective did little for me and if anything, gave me a sense of greater detachment from the characters. The absence of dialogue is pretty unnecessary. If anything, it comes across as a bit pretentious, almost as if Rooney is trying to make up for the very average plot. However, I liked the switching between narrators as I think the reader gets a fuller picture of the relationship.
The story is far from nuance. As the book has won such prestige, I expected it to blow me away. But it’s your classic love story with a peppering of some more poignant themes, most prominently, Rooney’s treatment of the “social class performance” of university.
Touching on the experience of class at university was crafted through Connell, who is the token working class character. He comes from a single parent family and constantly feels like his isn’t good enough for middle class Marianne. University for Connell at Trinity, is disappointing and lacking substance. He documents himself sitting in seminars where people, because of their privileged former education, are able to ramble about texts they haven’t read with confidence. Seminars lack meaning as privileged students fire off phrases and literary analysis they’ve been exposed to since their lives began. Importantly, Marianne flourishes at University when she struggled at school. She can use her cultured background to her advantage as she mesmerizes everyone in all social settings. This portrayal of university culture was largely similar to my own, and I felt it added a poignant element to the novel – though it was far from perfect. (I won’t go on about this as it will make the post even longer, but I could do a separate post on this if anyone would find that interesting…)
On the whole – for me it was average and underwhelming. It was enjoying enough to read, but I don’t think it deserves the “future classic” status it has been given.
Reviewing the BBC Adaptation
My rating: ★★★☆☆
Was the TV series any better? To be honest, I don’t think it could be as it was so close to the book, even word for word in many scenes. I found the format a bit strange and wonder why they chose to do it in 12 half an hour episodes, when you could have done 6 one hour episodes, it seemed to allude to the same sense of detachment I got from the third person point of view in the book.
It was nicely shot and put together with very good casting however – comparing a book to a TV adaptation is always a bit pointless, as it is a completely different way of telling a story. However, I did find the TV series more enjoyable – I guess you could say it was more gripping. I think this was aided by how short the episodes were – I found myself saying, oh go on then, just another episode, and before I knew it I had binged them all.
The sex scenes were prolific, I think there were three occasions this happened in the second episode. Despite the quantity of it, I was impressed by how natural the sex was conveyed, it wasn’t perfect, but real. Marianne’s sexuality wasn’t portrayed as any more or less than Connell’s – in one aspect at least, they were equal.
In the TV series I felt like there was more of a focus on Marianne’s troubled home life, featuring the constant abuse from her brother, Alan. It allowed her to be seen for what she really was, and what she tries to cover up with her insolence in the beginning. Her past abusive father and her now brother, played a role in making her tell herself she was unlovable or didn’t deserve to love. As a young woman, she is withdrawn at school, but at university she tries to challenge this model and break beyond it. She is a complex character, but the more I read, the more confused I was by her.
I guess I would say I got more enjoyment from watching the TV series, it was cast well and the acting was spot on. However, I find it interesting to see what was emphasized compared to the book. Naturally, the program focused on sex scenes and the dramatic elements of the book, including a fight with her abusive brother Alan, where he nearly breaks her nose. Although there was a scene when Marianne was invited to spend Christmas at Loraine’s (Connell’s Mother) and they were doing the pre-Christmas shop and bumped into Marianne’s mother. Her mother didn’t say a word to her, just stared blankly into the distance as if Marianne was invisible. This was one of the more bleak and poignant scenes – which perhaps wasn’t conveyed in the same way as the book.
As I stated at the beginning, I still feel that Normal People is overrated. It follows the traditional parameters of a love story, with adding in some nuance aspects such as class, family abuse, and the realities of university life, but fundamentally, I found it underwhelming. Sure it’s a good story and it grips you, but does it deserve all the critical acclaim? I found the form lazy and the plot typical of young adult, coming-of-age, romance genres. The characters were interesting but frustrating. The TV series was more appealing, but nonetheless, it can’t be rated any higher than the book. Is it worth a read and watch, but should it be called the next classic of our generation? No.
I’ve barely seen any critical pieces about this but would love to know your thoughts on the book/TV series, let me know what you liked about it (or disliked).
These are some interesting mainstream reviews I found whilst writing this:
- https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/05/sally-rooney-normal-people-hulu-bbc-soap-opera (more critical)
- https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/apr/26/normal-people-review-sally-rooney-bbc-hulu (praiseworthy)