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:

August and September in Books

Caught between packing up my life in York and finishing my degree, it has taken me a while to sit down and write this – but I haven’t stopped reading (quite the opposite!) This is what I read between August and September.

Featuring: The Help, Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Normal People, Dance, Dance Dance and The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect.

Image: The Telegraph. The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius (1654)

The Help, Kathryn Stockett (2009)

I spent my first, initial bout of freedom with The Help, a book I had been meaning to read for years. Having only read about its reception after finishing the book, I was shocked to discover the critical reviews and accusations of ‘white washing’ surrounding Stockett’s depiction of the black maids. Upon reading it, I found quite the opposite. It was so refreshing to read a book set during the Civil Rights movement which was centered on depicting the struggle through the eyes and experience of the marginalized.

The novel is told through the experience of black, female maids working in Mississippi whilst the Civil Rights movement begins. Another perspective offered is through Eugenia Skeeter, an aspiring, young white journalist. Through her attachment to her own previous maid, Constantine, it becomes her ambition to write a book portraying the experiences of black maids in Mississippi. Through her lens, we get an insight into the difficulties of writing about a ‘taboo’ subject in an era still favoring the use of black maids in white households, the segregation and pull of white supremacy.

Stockett herself, makes no claim to be documenting the entirety of black maid experience. However, she draws upon her own experience having grown up in Mississippi during the 1960s – she was also close to an African American domestic worker – which formed the inspiration for this novel.

I loved this novel and thought it was incredibly eye opening and cleverly written. (5/5)

Gone Girl, Gillian Flyn (2014)

I found myself fully immersed in this novel as soon as I started reading it. I was gripped towards the two leading characters, Amy and Nick Dunne. Their relationship and lives are told through alternating chapters, featuring their perspectives of each other. The reader is left not knowing who is the ‘mad’ one in the relationship and who is responsible for the series of events which escalate.

The beginning of the book outlines their rather chaotic and different lives and questions how they have ended up together in the first place. It is interesting how Flyn has paralleled the two alternative perspectives of the same relationship to the point where the reader cannot side with either perpetrator.

Up until the point where Amy Dunne goes missing, I was hooked. But when the novel begins to shift towards its ending, I lost interest. I felt the initial complexity of it was lost and the ending was rather dull. I was left with the impression that the author had gotten bored with it and wanted to quickly wrap it up.

Still worth a read though, 3/5.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013)

These few words I’m about to write about The Goldfinch, will never pay homage to its genius (I am thinking about writing a separate post on it altogether), but I would just like to say I think it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it written beautifully, but it draws on all the essential assets of being human in the modern age.

It plays on what is is to be human and how we are all, in some way, suspect to being driven by the fallibility of beauty, art and illusion. Featuring the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which is stolen by the protagonist, Theodore Decker, during an explosion in an art gallery, each aspect of the story comes back to the painting and its central, symbolic message. There is beauty in everything but is is all essentially an illusion, and not necessarily worth saving.

It is also deals with the imperfection and fallibility of human experience, against the backdrop of urban America. Theodore experiences the trials and tribulations of an adolescent growing up in modern America. It touches on the sensitive, human issues of our times in the most beautiful way.

The extent of character development Tartt is able to create in this book blew me away. Although Theo was flawed, often wrong and subject to countless stupidity, I was always drawn to him and I felt bound to him in a way I never have to any other fictional character.

A must read for anyone, 5/5.

Normal People, Sally Rooney (2019)

For all the hype surrounding this book, and the claims it is the next D.H Lawrence or J.D Salinger, I failed to see how it could be comparable. I found it to be a good book, but I am unsure whether it is one of the best of our times.

It explores the lives of two main characters growing up in Dublin, Ireland. The two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, find themselves always drawn back to each other, whether by a platonic or sexual relationship, which appears to constantly alternate. It draws upon wider issues of class in the contexts of ‘modern’ relationships and the barriers that can remain between them.

Their lives are complicated, as all young adults’ are. I did I feel connected to them and the novel in general, but it hasn’t really resonated with me in the same way as it has with other people.

The relationship between the two protagonists is explored against a backdrop of the class inequalities in modern Ireland. However much I appreciate the sentiment and the characterization of the protagonist, I cannot quite fathom why it has had such a great reception. 3/5

Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami (2011)

I go through periods where I absolutely devour Murakami and others where I don’t touch his books. These few months were the former.

I will be biased as Murakami is by far one of my favourite authors but I really did love this book. The novel is told through the protagonist whom is struggling to acquire work as a commercial writer. A sense of restlessness seems to follow him around, so much so that he always ends up at the same strange, Dolphin Hotel; the place where two worlds meet. Strangely enough though, the protagonist is never named. Perhaps, like the premise of the book, he is not known in the present world? Who knows.

Like most Murakami novels, there is not just the present world, but an abundance of worlds where characters lose and find themselves. Although technically a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, I think this novel still works as a stand-alone if you are familiar with Murakami’s writing.

The novel deals with sexuality, friendship, love and loss through the typical sense of strangeness and restlessness which appears in most of Murakami’s novels. It also contains a subtle critique of some elements of modernity, including the wrath of capitalism and how it can be a force for destruction. 4/5

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect, Sarah Armstrong (2019)

I found this book whilst browsing through the proof copy bookshelf in the shop where I work. I was drawn to it as it was written by an author I had never heard of. Sarah Armstrong actually lives in the same town as I do, so I naturally wanted to become more familiar with her work.

I instantly fell in love with the feel and intrigue of this book and learnt a lot about life in Soviet Moscow in the 1970s. The book follows the main protagonist, Martha as she moves to Moscow with her new husband Kit, who is effectively, her gay best friend. Martha moves to Moscow in the hope to start a better life, having been sent away from Cambridge University for distributing left-wing leaflets.

Martha attempts to fully immerse herself into the Moscow life in her attempt to learn the language and make friends. But she is unaware of the dangers of her actions and the spy-like consequences of her actions. Life in Moscow is never quite what she imagined.

Armstrong depicts the Soviet state in the 1970s with startling realism. Like Martha, I too was lured in by the beauty, fascination and sense of the unknown that Moscow seemed to portray. The novel always feels slightly uncomfortable, but all the while, utterly fascinating and alluring.

I was very pleased to find out there is a sequel is in the works! 4/5