Normal People: Book Vs TV Series

Image: BT

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

Image: Entertainment Weekly

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.

Final thoughts

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:

Book Review: The Library of Lost and Found

Title: The Library of Lost and Found

Author: Phaedra Patrick

Genre: Fiction

My rating: ★★★★

Synopsis

One day Martha, a librarian, discovers a mystery package on her door step which changes her life forever. In the package is a book of short stories, featuring a dedication from her Grandmother, Zelda, who died years earlier. This becomes a puzzle to Martha and she sets out to get to the bottom of it.

Martha is always helping other people and spends her life putting people before herself, however, with the arrival of this package, she is forced to face past family secrets that have entrapped her forever. Join her, as she goes on her own journey of self discovery.

This is a heartwarming and uplifting story set in a small, English seaside town, that will take you on Martha’s journey as she discovers more about her family. It is fundamentally, a story about the joy of storytelling and the power of the written word and imagination, but also the value of family, friendships and love.

Review

  • I immediately loved the feel of this book as it is a book about books! The main protagonist, Martha, is a librarian who appreciates the joy of books and used to write stories when she was a young girl, naturally I was invested in the book and Martha as a character.
  • Martha is instantly likable as she leads a life helping others and the reader is left wanting to know if she herself, gets a happy ending. All her life she has put her needs last and it is starting to take its toll on her. The arrival of this mystery package comes at the right time.
  • The element of mystery introduced by the package and the can of worms it opens within Martha’s family, is intriguing and made me want to read on. I wanted to find out what had happened within the family many years ago. I wanted to know where the book came from and why etc.
  • The book flips between different narrators, events and time periods, to give background on the family setting and what happened between Martha’s parents and her Grandmother, Zelda. I thought this was clever in the way it related to the present and connected the dots.
  • The story on the whole was very well told, intriguing and gripping, but for a story about stories, I was left feeling slightly unfulfilled by the plot and its ending. I felt there were more avenues it could have explored to give it more depth, however, maybe it’s being left for a sequel…?
  • The story ends with Martha just starting to gain more control over her life and putting her happiness first, however, we never know exactly how this ends which is disappointing.
  • I loved the setting of this book, as I have always been attracted to small, English coastal towns. I like the idea of Martha’s family living in the same place for generations and the amount of history and sentiment the place holds for her.
  • It definitely has elements of sadness which I kind of expected – but these were explored with a great amount of poignancy which makes you realise the importance of family, and how we are all constrained by time.
  • Martha as a character frustrated me at times but I guess that was the point – as readers we feel invested as we want her to have the good ending that she deserves.

Final thoughts

I would recommend this to anyone who likes stories about stories, books and writing. And also anyone who loves a slight mystery tinged with romance and intrigue. This book covers all of these elements and is told in such a heartfelt, uplifting way, that I would’t hesitate to suggest it to anyone.

It was a joy to read and I devoured it over the course of a few days. But I was left feeling slightly unsatisfied by the ending, hence, I haven’t given it a five star rating. Nonetheless, it is a story full of great characters that oozes warmth and the value of family and friends – which we could all take a dose of in this difficult time.

The past was in the past, and she had to accept it and lay it to rest, so she could look to the future.”

April Wrap Up

Hello! Hope you all had a good month, despite everything that has been going on in the world. It was a month of up and downs for me but one thing is for sure, I definitely was able to enjoy reading.

I’m glad that this month I seem to have re-discovered my love for non-fiction, as well as reading some classics which have been on my TBR for ages. There were a few books I was disappointed with, but on the whole I had some great reads!

What I read this month

Hiroshima John Hersey ★★★★

John Hersey provides a harrowing account of the tragedies of Hiroshima, told through the eyes and ears of those who lived through it. Not one for a light read, but nonetheless an essential one for understanding the past and how it influenced our present world.

Machines Like Me Ian McEwan ★★★☆☆

I had been eagerly awaiting for this to be released in paperback but was left incredibly disappointed. It raises some interesting themes about humanity and the future of AI but it’s delivery was somewhat lacking, and I didn’t think the alternate history added anything to the novel. Interesting, but not the best McEwan out there.

The Flatshare Beth O’Leary ★★★★

This was exactly what I needed to read during lockdown. It is a lighthearted, uplifting and funny story about a woman who opts in to share a flat with a man she never plans to meet. It left me feeling warm and bubbly inside and is a read I’d recommend to anyone!

Call Me By Your Name Andre Aciman ★★★★

A hot and steamy love story I wasn’t quite prepared for, but one I enjoyed all the same. I loved Aciman’s prose and his ability to take you away to endless summer days in the Italian Rivera. I questioned his portrayal of love but nonetheless, think it is a great read and an important one.

The Past Is Present John Markowski ★★★★

This is the first book I read for Reedsy Discovery and I was incredibly impressed. The book was fast paced and driven by excellent character narratives which alternated between the turn of events. A classic page turner. Due to be released on 8th May, you can see my review here.

Why I Write George Orwell ★★★★★

Orwell makes the ongoing case for socialism crystal clear, in this short collection of essays written against the background of rising Fascism across Europe in World War Two. Essential then, but all the more now. An enduring message written with conviction and coherency.

Lonesome Traveler Jack Kerouac ★★★★

Travel writing at its finest – I really needed this bit of escapism. Follow one man as he travels across America, Europe, Morocco and a desolate mountain top. Hard to follow in places but nonetheless, a classic Kerouac featuring beautiful, poetic prose.

The Graduate Charles Webb ★★☆☆☆

Disappointing from start to finish, the characters were inauthentic and the story lacked any depth or coherency. This could have been an interesting novel about post-graduation life, but I felt that the way the novel was written limited its impact. Film is probably better.

What I’m currently reading

The Library of Lost and Found Phaedra Patrick

I picked this up as a bit of light relief from some heavy books I have been reading recently. I’ve seen it around a lot and thought I would give it a go. It is mainly told through the perspective of one woman, Martha, who one day, receives a parcel on the doorstep of a library she works in. The parcel is a book inscribed by her grandmother, who died years before the date it was written in. Martha attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding this book and in the process, rediscovers herself and what it means to really live.

I’m really enjoying this book so far and am close to finishing it. A review will certainly be up soon!

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, Robert Tressell

This book has been on my to read pile for as long as I can remember, and now in isolation I’ve finally had the chance to read it. Deemed as the favourite book of both George Orwell and Jeremy Corbyn alike, I felt like I had to read it to further broaden my horizons on the necessities of socialism and its origins.

The book is told through a variety of perspectives of men who are overworked and exploited – but who cannot face up to the extent of their own poverty. The main narrator, Owen, is the only one who can see the reality of their poor working conditions and the wider problems. He tries to explain socialism, inequality, wealth redistribution and poverty to his peers – but with little luck. I’ve read around 300 pages so far and am very much enjoying it, I am learning a lot. A review is definitely on the horizon.

What’s on my May TBR?

I’m bound to change my mind if I commit to reading certain titles next but again, there’s so much I want to read! But I have a few ideas, for non- fiction I’d like to have a go at:

  • Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload by Julia Hobsbawn. This book looks at the way human society and interactivity has changed with the arrival of the internet, 24/7 media coverage and social media.
  • Airhead by Emily Maitlis. After her stunning interrogation of Prince Andrew during the Epstein scandal, I have become a fan of Emily Maitlis. She is a brilliant broadcaster and journalist and I can’t wait to read this autobiography.

For fiction, I’d like to read:

  • The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. I have read The Secret History and absolutely devoured The Goldfinch and loved every word, so I am holding out high hopes for this one too. I have no idea what it is about but as always with Tartt, I do feel a little intimidated by this book due to its size, but then I remember how much I devoured The Goldfinch
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Have seen and read great things about this novel, including great praise by Barack Obama so I can’t wait to get stuck into this too!

My reading stats

  • Total pages read: 1,819
  • Total books finished: 8
  • Average rating: 3.75

Final thoughts

April has definitely been a strange month and probably one that I will remember for the rest of my life. In the UK, we have been in lockdown for over a month and life still isn’t due to return to normality for a while. I experienced highs and lows throughout the month, but nonetheless I am so happy I have found the time to read and write again.

What did you read in April? And what are you looking forward to reading next month? Please let me know in the comments! And wherever you are in the world, how is the virus affecting you?

Hope you are all well and in good spirits 🙂


Book review: The Graduate

Title: The Graduate

Author: Charles Webb

Genre: Fiction, Romance

First published: 1963

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

Synopsis

Benjamin Braddock returns back to his family home from college with a brilliant degree, a teaching prize and a bright future ahead of him. However, for the next year, he lazes around in his parents’ middle class suburban, American household, dwindling away the hours floating around the pool and drinking into the early hours.

He is plagued by the feeling one gets after graduation. Where shall I go from here, what shall I do with the rest of my life? The age old question which has tramped many from generations gone by. He returns from college, not revived by the prospect of education – but drowned by it.

Things soon take a turn, as Ben is seduced by the wife of one of his fathers business partners on the evening of his graduation party. This soon turns into a shady affair, led by Mrs Robinson. In the middle of this, Ben is then encouraged by his fathers business partner, Mr Robinson to take their daughter, Elaine out on a date.

After this date, Ben is suddenly in love with Elaine – the daughter of the woman he was having an affair with. Ben soon fleas to Berkeley to pursue the apparent love of his life.

Review

I had been looking forward to reading this for ages. The promised feel of the book appealed to me, having only graduated at the beginning of this year. However, almost everything in this book disappointed me. This is the lowest rating I’ve given to a book this year but I just can’t justify it being any higher.

Lets start with the protagonist – Benjamin Braddock. He comes from a wealthy family and has just finished his college degree with securing a possible teaching placement at Harvard university. On returning home, he begins to find the prospect of further education draining and a waste of time, but he has no idea what else to do. Faced with endless pressure from his snobbish parents – he feels he ought to do something noble and good. I can relate to him on this level – but that’s where it ends. If there is one word to describe Ben – it’s flippant. And not flippant in a good, Gatsby-esque way, but in an annoying and incomprehensible way, that never leads to anything.

Ben thinks the whole world revolves around him and thinks he is too good for the world – and that really gets to me. He is male, white, college educated and has prospects. Why does he constantly fail to acknowledge his own privilege and the potential power this could bring? I guess this is in the dating of the novel.

The novel is mostly told through repetitive, argumentative dialogue between Ben and his parents, Ben and Mrs Robinson (the woman he was having an affair with) and Ben and Elaine. It’s tiresome to read and sheds little light on the protagonist himself. It is almost impossible to understand him and to connect with him in any way. He jumps from hoop to hoop and seems to fall in love with Elaine overnight, despite only ever going on a date with her to please Mr Robinson. He’s winy, but not in an endearing way, and seems hell bent on wasting away his future with an endeavor that lacks true authenticity.

There was no way I could be invested in Ben and as a result, I couldn’t enjoy the book. I found him to be tiresome and irritating, and wanted to give him a good shake. The premise of his situation could have been a poignant way in which Charles Webb explored the restlessness of coming out of university and the trials that post-graduate life brings. However, the dialogue driven prose lacked depth, authenticity, and intrigue, and does not allow for connections to be formed between the reader and the protagonist.

It took me less than a day to read, as reading through dialogue is a fairly fast process. Especially when the dialogues between different characters just repeat themselves. The prose offers nothing remarkable, no eye catching sentiments or images, but mere conversations and arguments between characters who never actually seem to like each other.

The story goes round and round and at times I almost laughed out loud at the ridiculousness. I find it hard to believe it has achieved the status of a “modern classic” but I suspect the 1968 adaptation into a film, staring Dustin Hoffman had a large role to play in it.

All in all, Ben was not an authentic character I could get behind and neither were his relationships. The story jumped about from start to finish and lacked any depth and coherency that could enable meaning. The themes were at first, plausible and interesting and were what drew me to the book. However, the protagonist, Ben, and the limited prose, made it impossible to render the promise of an American masterpiece possible.

Disappointing and probably not worth your time reading – although it only took me a day to finish from cover to cover. If you have read this and enjoyed it, do let me know. I may be missing something!

Book Review: Lonesome Traveler

Title: Lonesome Traveler

Author: Jack Kerouac

Genre: Short story, travelouge, fiction

Published: 1960/1990

Rating: ★★★★

Long time no see! If I’m honest I’ve been experiencing a bit of a reading slump, maybe I’ve been going too heavy during isolation… I also haven’t felt like writing much, so apologies for the lack of posts.

Jack Kerouac and the “Beat Generation”

I don’t usually write anything on an author’s background, but I feel it is useful for appreciating this book and Kerouac’s writing more generally. I read On The Road (1957) in my teens and fell in love with the dreamy writing, but never delved deeper into the context surrounding Kerouac’s work.

Kerouac is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the, “Beat Generation,” a group of American writers in the post war period who were exploring American culture and politics in a form that rejected the ‘traditional’ literary narrative. These novels cover aspects of religion, exploration and rejection of materialism. Additionally, the experience of being human are placed at the forefront, with documentation of drugs, alcohol, sexual liberation and ideas of self fulfillment. Other well known authors of the Beat Generation include William S Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg.

Kerouac’s writing style outwardly rejects traditional literary devices, what he called, “simply poetry or natural description” deployed in Lonesome Traveler. The entirety of the novel is told through a spontaneous prose which jumps about between topics, people and places. Importantly, there is no coherency or structure – this was precisely what Kerouac was rejecting. Kerouac lived by, “first thought, best thought” and wasn’t a fan of revising his work, as he believed this was a form of “literary lying”.

The Beat Generation influenced the Counter cultural movements of the 1960s, due to its featuring of sexual liberation, prominent drug use and experimentation. However, the movement was made up of a pool of distinctly white, male authors. Women were incredibly absent. There were some female Beat authors including, Carolyn Cassady and Edie Parker, however, they never attained the same kind of success as male counterparts. In an interesting article, Lynette Lounsbury infers that female Beat authors were the “wives” to the male, literary greats of the period – never being appreciated on their own account.

It’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary this writing was – when we are now exposed to so much variation. An out right rejection of the literary form had never been fully attempted in the 1960s, and Kerouac was one of its pioneers. Today, we have the joys of postmodernism behind us, and authors such as Lucy Ellmann and Ali Smith – who abandon the constraints of the novel.

Overview

It is unclear (from what I’ve read) whether this is based on Keroauc’s own experience entirely, or meant as a more fictional account. Nevertheless, the story follows the journey of one man as he travels through America, Mexico, Morocco, Paris, London, and a desolate mountaintop. It contains the protagonists inner philosophy on life, and is a tale of human experience told through the documentation one man’s travels.

These travels are restless, filled with drug and alcohol abuse and women, but other times, a true insight into the human condition and our relationship with our surroundings. It’s poetic, pays homage to the beauty of nature and embodies the kind of free, liberation rhetoric which was beginning to emerge in 1960s.

Review

I love this book primarily because it is so against the grain of ‘typical’ literary fiction and challenges what we traditionally think of as a successful book – that being, having a coherent structure of a beginning, middle, and an end. Instead, Lonesome Traveler rejects these constrains and does its own thing. Today, it might not seem so original as we are readily exposed to so many different narrative forms, but considering the context, this really was one of a kind.

I love Kerouac’s prose style – he is rambling , descriptive and incoherent but occasionally, you stumble across something completely beautiful which makes you pause in amazement. I can appreciate his writing isn’t for everybody, as it is hard to follow, and I found this far harder to follow than On The Road. I had to concentrate hard to try and appreciate what was being said, but loved it all the same. The type of sensory prose Kerouac deploys enables the text to become so livable – at times, it is almost like you are experiencing what he is describing.

My favourite chapter or ‘short story’ was Alone on a Mountaintop. Before getting to this point, I admit, I was feeling somewhat disappointed with the book, but when I read this section I felt revived.

In this journey, he is alone for months on the top of a mountain, Desolation Peak, overlooking the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on the Canada-US border. He only has a basic cabin and nature to keep him company. Through this experience of truly being alone, the narrator documents beautifully the human relationship with nature, the experience of complete solitude and what it means to be human. It takes the reader on a kind of self fulfillment and exploratory journey that is like no other,

“Because silence itself is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything, the sound of Holy Emptiness, the sound of extinction and bliss, that graveyard silence which is the silence of an infant’s smile, the sound of eternity, of the blessedness surely to be believed…”

It regularly features ideas about God, religion, self fulfillment and self acceptance. Now, I’m not religious, but the way Kerouac speaks about religion makes me want to listen, as it feels beautiful and insightful,

“For when you realize that God is Everything you know that you’ve got to love everything no matter how bad it is, in the ultimate sense it was neither good nor bad (consider the dust), it was just what was, that is, what was made to appear…”

In a sense, the religious elements (apart from his thinking on Buddhism) do not come across as overly religious, but more, dwellings on the human condition and a kind of philosophy to live by.

All in all, I loved the prose and the subjects the narrator managed to breach. I like the element of simplicity it puts at the forefront of the travel experience – in a way, telling us to try and appreciate the forces of nature and our surroundings. The sex and drugs didn’t do much for me, but this is never the focus. The images created make me envious as I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write in that way, but I nonetheless reveled in their ability to take me to another time and place.

However – it is hard to follow and reading Kerouac is never easy. I can’t give it five stars as I did feel drained by it in some places, and it was only towards the end that I felt any kind of connection to the text. Importantly, I just liked the ‘feel’ of the book, it made me want to pack up a rucksack and run (when COVID-19 is over of course) to see the world for what it really is. To strip back the complications and appreciate life for how it is meant to be lived.