Sally Rooney’s Normal People* has been pretty hard to avoid hearing about since the series came out on BBC3. I actually read this a couple of months ago and was eagerly awaiting the series to be released. If you enjoyed the series, I would definitely recommend reading the book.
The book follows the story of Connell and Marianne, from school right through to the end of university. In school, Marianne is a bit of a loner; bookish and sarcastic, whereas Connell is popular and well-liked, though different from his friends. His easy manner and excellence at sport disguise his shyness. They are both incredibly intelligent. One day, when Connell arrives to pick his mother up from work as a cleaner at Marianne’s house, a spark of attraction jumps between him and Marianne. That spark leads them through their final days at school, to Trinity College and beyond, in a continually on-again, off-again relationship. It is a story of two people, both very far from ‘normal people’, who keep finding each other at various stages in their lives.
I loved this book, though sometimes it was very awkward and sometimes I just wanted to bang their heads together. Some decisions they make are so frustrating because they struggle to articulate their true feelings. The first few pages of the book, I did struggle with the lack of speech marks but I actually really came to like Sally’s writing. She writes in a way that really makes you feel the fragility and vulnerability of the characters’ feelings. I was immersed and impossibly moved from the first chapter.
It is hard to talk about the book without mentioning the reviews. I bought it from Blackwells, so hadn’t seen how divisive the book was online. If you look at the amazon page, Normal People* seems to have split people. The majority of people my age (20s) that I know have loved the book, so perhaps being closer to experiences like this helps. I think this is a novel where the main characters either resonate with you or they do not; the series never really develops any characters outside the central pair. At times neither of them were particularly likeable, but the hurt and fragility they feel are still painful to watch.
I have to say that the tv series was done amazingly in my opinion. I thought Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) in school was too pretty and normal looking, the classic putting someone attractive in some badly fitting clothes/glasses/bad hair and calling them weird that happens in a lot of films. But the way she acts fits really well, and by the time we get to her being in university, she looks exactly how I imagined. Connell (played by Paul Mescal) is exactly how I pictured him. The fact Connell’s chain has its own Instagram, which at the time of writing has 72k followers, is perhaps telling of who most enjoyed the series.
It is also worth mentioning the amazing cinematography of the film. The book is set in Sligo, a small town in the west of Ireland. The series includes a lot of beautiful shots of Sligo’s beaches and mountains. The series made it look so enticing that Tourism Ireland has been using imagery from it. The snowy scenes from Sweden are magical, and the Italian villa is so quintessentially Italian that it made me reminisce of past holidays and warm summer evenings. Though set in Trieste in the book, both Marianne’s family villa and the piazza scenes were filmed in Stimigliano, an hour north of Rome.
There were some differences between the book and the series. Perhaps one of the most significant differences for me is close to the start. In the book, most of their school romance is played out away from school, at their respective houses or outside. The series, however, shows us how they interact at school, and also cements our idea of Marianne’s pariah status at school. We get a sense of what the pair’s hidden relationship looked like surrounded by their classmates, and perhaps understand why Connell wants to keep it a secret from his friends more, one of the most hurtful things he does in the whole story.
Overall, this is an emotional, fragile telling of a love story through two people’s formative years, navigating their peers, mental health and opposing backgrounds. I am excited to see what Sally Rooney writes next, and as I am yet to read Conversations with Friends*, that is next on my reading list.
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