With the release of her second novel, Sally Rooney faces no shortage of high expectations. Her first novel, “Conversations with Friends,” sold over 78,000 copies and garnered a cult following, particularly remarkable for its genre, literary fiction. Her second novel, “Normal People,” has collected the same if not more extraordinary buzz from celebrities, Goodreads reviewers and from within the literary world, as the novel was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.
Thus, the announcement of the television adaptation of Rooney’s well-loved novel “Normal People” in May 2019 followed a positive revival of Rooney in the public eye. Just as the pressure was on Rooney for her sophomore publication, the expectations are skyrocketing.
The 28-year-old author assisted with scriptwriting for the Hulu and BBC Three series. The Oscar-nominated Lenny Abrahamson will be directing it. The 12-episode show will be released in April 2020, and it faces the challenge of representing the literary complexity of “Normal People” with authenticity and to please the great number of fans the novel has garnered.
Rooney’s “Normal People” tells the story of the intimate and always changing friendship between Connell and Marianne. Readers are first introduced to the two protagonists when they’re in high school.
As a teenager, Connell has the upper hand in their dynamic; he is widely-liked and popular at school while Marianne is widely-disliked. Connell’s mom cleans Marianne’s family home. He spends his afternoons having secret discussions with her about politics and books in her kitchen. Eventually, this evolves into secret nights having sex with her in her childhood bedroom.
Both of them are deeply intelligent and somewhat wounded. Their relationship feels symbiotic, natural, as if neither character has to think too much about their intimacy before it happens.
In this reflection on their time in high school, Rooney perfectly encompasses the anxiety and uncertainty of being young when most of us don’t know why we feel or act the way that we do. By the end of their high school or “college” days, Connell cuts their secret relationship short for reasons he can’t quite admit to himself, while hurting Marianne in the process.
When the two move to Trinity College in Dublin, their dynamic shifts with the changing social tides of university life. Connell quickly realizes that wealth is a determining factor for the students and their friend groups — a constant topic of conversation marking him as an immediate outsider because of his humble economic background.
Unlike his small hometown in the west of Ireland, no one at Trinity has any prior knowledge of him as an individual. His personality can no longer “be managed by the opinions of others,” which makes his natural shyness an obstacle in new social situations.
For Marianne, this freedom from small town gossip has been a positive change in her life at university. Her wit, intellect and interest in political issues no longer deem her as a loner but rather give her some social currency. She runs into Connell for the first time since their parting at her current boyfriend’s party, where she is surrounded by a tight-knit group of scholarly friends.
Rooney masterfully captures the pretentious charm that undergirds university social life. Connell, a student of literature, voices the harshest critique about this elitism as he’s drowning in a sea of students and professors who “see books as primarily a way of appearing cultured,” going on to say: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys.”
The shift in the dynamic between Marianne and Connell unfolds into something deeper and more natural as the two fall into a casual relationship: a friends-with-benefits and an unparalleled intimacy sort of encounter. The sweetness of it, embodied by the sweetness of campus life, is enough to make one’s heart ache in nostalgia. Their days in the library are followed by cooking spaghetti together, then having sex, then having gratifying conversations.
The two share not only an easy physical intimacy, but an intellectual and emotional one as well. In conversation, intercourse of the purest form, they’re compared to “figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronization that it surprises them both.” These discussions, Connell suspects, make the sex feel better.
This is what makes Rooney and “Normal People” so brilliant. Her protagonists both have brooding internal monologues, both struggling individually yet finding some rare comfort and familiarity in one another. Neither one can fully say aloud to the other the depth of their feelings, but the emotional intensity that bubbles between them is tangible, nonetheless.
That tension will be a presented challenge for the television adaptation’s main actors, Daisy Edgar-Jones, as Marianne, and Paul Mescal, as Connell. So much of their relationship is unspoken, which is one of the reasons why it ends twice.
However, Rooney depicts more than a will-they/won’t-they love story of repressed feelings. After all, Connell accidentally ends things with Marianne for the second time because he can’t bring himself to ask if he can stay at her place, bringing himself to be honest about his financial situation with her.
For a series, it would be a safer, more accessible route to water “Normal People” down to a story of untimely lovers. Rooney’s social commentary that supports this romance, however, feels too pressing to be overlooked for the sake of television. She demonstrates to her readers how class distinctions can wade their way into even the most apparently untouchable relationships, as those strict lines girdle the largest divide between Connell and Marianne.
Her meditations on romance in the present day feel relevant too. It shows how, even in an age of hypervisibility and hyper-communication via social networking, Connell and Marianne still dance around miscommunications and swallow unspoken confessions.
These subtle commentaries add enticing and moving complexity to the plot and its characters. To see the unspoken dynamic of Connell and Marianne’s intimacy on screen, and the delicate ideologies that weave within their relationship, will no doubt be a highly emotional and rewarding experience. Especially if the show holds an ounce of the same care and detail with which Rooney writes.