Normal People captures the pain of a first love affected by an inescapable class divide

1 May 2020

 

SPOILERS AHEAD. Consider yourself warned.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney, quite simply, is a perfectly imperfect story about two individuals with very different life experiences who keep finding their way back to one another.

 

The adapted screenplay, available in its entirety on BBC iPlayer, making it a perfect show to binge-watch while we’re all stuck inside, is a show I couldn’t get enough of. 

 

I binged watched all 12 episodes in one day and was overall satisfied with my viewing experience. Each episode, lasting around half an hour, is a whirlwind and showcases raw experiences which people can relate to.

 

Set primarily in Ireland, the drama itself unfolds over four years - taking the lovers from sixth-form, through university and finally to the beginning of their lives as postgraduates. 

 

The passion and desire felt by the principal characters Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) feels real and agonising, and I enjoyed the harsh reality presented throughout. 

 

Normal People captures the excitement, pain and joy that comes with loving someone and the show, similarly to the novel, explores the occasionally awkward but incredibly intimate relationship between the two main characters.

 

Quite shamefully, I binged watched the series before hastily reading the book, which, in all honesty, isn’t the way I would recommend doing things. 

 

However, I am pleased that I, therefore, had no sense of disappointment or stress that the series would divert too far away from the book, unlike how I’ve felt about every Dracula adaptation ever made. But, unlike those very dreadful Dracula adaptations, Normal People stays very true to the book, which I’m sure is a relief to the die-hard fans. 

 

But amongst the steamy relationship, and I mean that very literally, the story raises some incredibly important issues with total ease. Marianne and Connell are a couple trying to find one another through the struggles of social and class divides, along with their own inability to communicate. 

 

They’re total opposites, belonging to completely different ends of the class scale, yet they fit together so beautifully. Their relationship is far from perfect - which is what makes it so real and relatable - yet their desire for each other is everlasting. 

 

At their secondary school in Sligo, where we are first introduced to the characters, Marianne is the well-off girl, while Connell, although popular, is far from privileged. His mother cleans Marianne’s house, and this class divide between them is something which we are reminded of constantly.

 

Connell, who is incredibly intelligent, makes it to Trinity College to study English even though it’s usually only the privileged who get the grades. While for Marianne, her place at the university was almost inevitable. 

 

Connell had originally chosen to study Law at Galway, but only when Marianne says he should change to English is he brave enough to pursue what’s so often reserved for privileged children with well-off parents. This decision decides the rest of the story.

 

If Connell had studied Law, his life would have gone down a completely different path - something Rooney continues to reference throughout the novel - which he himself is aware of from the beginning.

 

When he tells other people about his plans for the future, they ask if he wants to become a teacher, because, to them, only someone like Marianne could aspire to become a writer.

 

It is truly a beautiful coming-of-age story, where we see people change and grow while remaining grounded. It shows a seemingly small decision can change your entire life and make it take a different path. 

 

 

There are plenty of very intimate sex scenes so it’s definitely an R-rated show, but the scenes themselves are so raw and admirable for that reason. The intimacy is consensual between Marianne and Connell, and the visible seeking of consent is something often excluded from film and television.

 

Men’s mental health is also a topic raised with utter realness. After Connell’s friend from school, Rob, takes his own life, Connell falls into a state of severe depression. The story tackles the harsh reality of struggling with mental health with such sincerity, which is so unbelievably refreshing. 

 

Amongst their very real and challenging struggles, however, there are moments such as a bike ride through the Italian countryside and an all-night Skype call when one badly needs to feel close to the other when they couldn’t feel anymore perfect. Both characters come together and comfort the other when they need it most, and there is something so beautiful about their sheer compassion towards each other.

 

Throughout the story, we see that Connell has a hold over Marianne, both emotionally and sexually, but in the end, this hold doesn’t feel as strong. 

 

The novel ends with them being part of an equal partnership, much more equal than when the story began. This development, specifically of Marianne as an individual, is stark when she decides to stay in Ireland - when Connell wants her to go with him to New York after he finds out that he’s been offered a place on a Masters course at Cornell University. 

 

The story ends here quite abruptly, so we never find out whether Connell goes to New York and if his and Marianne’s relationship stands the test of time. But I like to think it does, as of course, I love a happy ending. 

 

But as frustrating as this ending may be, it’s also the ending that, on reflection, was needed. The characters have come together, but they are also individuals that can follow their desires and dreams.

 

And as I watched the final minute of the last episode, and finished the final page of the book I completed my journey with the characters, and I was overcome with the feeling of how much I wanted things to work out between them - for their very deep, extremely complicated but very real love to win.

 

Normal People is a coming-of-age story that is stunning in its presentation of raw emotion and intimacy. So of course, once you’ve read the book, it’s definitely worth the watch.


 

All 12 episodes of Normal People are available now on BBC iPlayer for UK viewers and available to stream on Hulu for international viewers.

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