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: Machines Like Me

Title: Machines Like Me And People Like You (2019)

Author: Ian McEwan

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis

Charlie lives in a rather dingy flat in London, it is some time in the alternative universe of the 1980s. After landing himself with a stack of inheritance money, he buys one of the first synthetic humans, a robot called Adam.

Charlie is in love with the resident living in the flat above his, a student called Miranda. After their love begins to blossom, together, they adopt Adam and play a hand in forming his design.

These first synthetic humans are designed by Alan Turing, as a result of his ongoing research into artificial intelligence. It is important to note that this novel is set in an ‘alternative 1980s’ meaning Turing is still alive – when in fact, he died in 1954. Additionally, Britain has just lost the Falklands war (which was won in 1982) and Tony Benn becomes Prime Minister under the Labour party. However, it was Margaret Thatcher who was in power from 1979.

Among the narrative of Charlie’s everyday life, adjusting to this new relationship with Adam and Miranda, we see snippets of political commentary based on this alternative Britain. Ian McEwan, although presenting an alternative history, still manages to convey the sense of change and upheaval that was the 1980s.

However, when Miranda opens up to Charlie about the events of her past, it throws their relationship and Adam’s involvement up in the air. The use of an artificial human, who appears perfectly likable, and morally aware, makes the reader question humanity’s assumed superiority of being.

Are we really superior, if machines too, are capable of love and compassion. What makes them a machine and us humans?

Review

I desperately wanted to like this book. However, I was left feeling endlessly disappointed.

I picked up this up, as I was fascinated by the theme which the novel aims to discuss. The novel centers on the extent to which artificial humans have the same capacity to feel, understand, and form relationships. McEwan poses the question with the interweaving of two sub plots, can artificial beings tell the difference between right and wrong? Can they feel quintessentially human emotions such as desire, compassion, and sadness?

In the featuring of a being so like us, it raises the question as to whether humanity is the superior being it often imagines itself to be. With the exploration of Miranda’s crimes and Adam’s want to put things right, McEwan infers firstly, that we are always flawed as human beings even if we essentially pursue a positive morality, but that artificial beings could also have a moral compass.

Image: NB Magazine, featuring Adam.

At first, Charlie is hesitant of Adam’s capacity to feel. When Adam reveals his feelings for Miranda, Charlie dismisses his capacity for love as a machine, but this is overshadowed by his anger and jealously. It is only at the very end, that Charlie admits that he thinks machines can feel like us. Turing himself, the fictitious creator of these synthetic humans, also believes his machines are capable of all the feelings and functions of an average human.

All in all, I loved the themes this book prompted and like many of McEwan’s novels, this one certainly caused me to think; about humanity, the function of artificial intelligence and science more generally. However, the way this theme was executed in certain events (which I won’t reveal due to spoilers) I thought was trivial, when it could have been done poignantly.

The complex theme and parameters of the novel were spoiled by the dystopian, alternative history setting, as this sets up an element of the ‘make believe’ which destroys the ability for readers to engage in the possibility of synthetic humans and their capacity – which I thought was the ultimate point being made by the novel.

The love triangle between Charlie, Miranda and Adam was made trivial by the events McEwan crafted between Adam and Miranda. It was, I believe, an unnecessary addition to the novel. Through the mere existence of their cohabitation and Adam’s display of friendship, the theme could have been explored in a more delicate way. However, it was erased by the acts that took place between Adam and Miranda. (You’ll have to read it to find out…)

Miranda and Charlie are likable enough characters and it is interesting to see how their relationship develops alongside an artificial human. However, the novel is completely told through Charlie. Although this creates an in depth, detailed insight into the mind of Charlie, I feel it could have been valuable to include alternative perspectives. Charlie is naturally hesitant about Adam’s capacity for humanity, whereas Miranda is more supportive. It would have added more depth to the novel to include her insight, and the insight of Adam himself. Adam could have shed a light on the nature of humanity from a non human perspective. This could have forced the reader to ask more questions about themselves, and the wider nature of humanity.

There is a few sub plots to the story, one which I thought was rather useless and poorly executed. One day Charlie stumbles across a young child, Mark, whom has been abandoned by his biological parents and eventually gets put into local authority care. Miranda takes a shine to him and convinces Charlie that they should adopt him. Adopting at 22 is strange enough, but Miranda knows she is about to gain a criminal record for her past offences. Additionally, she is cleared of all charges by social services and allowed to adopt Mark, despite spending time in prison. As someone who was adopted myself, I know this would never have happened. Nonetheless, I don’t think this subplot added to the novel at all.

As mentioned – I don’t believe the alternative history added to the story. We are currently living through rising artificial intelligence and the plausibility of synthetic human beings, so why set the story now? The element of dystopia makes the ideas and themes seem alien to the reader, due to the divergence from history. Thus, already, the reader is exposed to inconceivability, which is the opposite of what McEwan is trying to raise.

In portraying Adam as more human than Miranda and Charlie ever sought imaginable, McEwan infers that synthetic humans could be more like ourselves, and thus, more believable. However, in crafting an alternate history, miles from our own, he renders his inference implausible, and ridicules his own suggestion. Creating an inherent weakness in the execution of an initially enthralling theme.

Naturally, the writing is technically beautiful, and nothing far from what I expect from McEwan. It contains large sections of inner monologue from the protagonist, Charlie, with interweaving of political commentary from the alternative world. These parts do not add to the novel, although are sometimes interesting to ponder on.

I was lured into the novel as the writing is beautiful, but I was left feeling utterly disappointed. Nonetheless, this was an interesting novel which is well worth a read. Just not the best McEwan out there.