All the way back in 2018, even among fans, it was easy to feel that Sally Rooney’s Normal People was the most tiresome subject of the year. The novel, about two young people falling in and out of love in post-crash Ireland, was a huge bestseller as soon as it arrived, on the back of almost universal critical acclaim and passionate word-of-mouth. A Man Booker nomination came and went; Obama liked it; within two books, Rooney had become the Voice of a Generation. And as is the modern way with a cultural touchstone, we almost ruined something admirable and popular with a barrage of scrutiny. Countless thinkpieces announced that we held a future classic in our hands, or the worst book ever written. Before Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie MacDonald’s adaptation for BBC/Hulu even started filming, it was hard to imagine there would be anything new to say in two years’ time.
Yet for all the noise around Normal People, the TV adaptation is remarkable in its quietness. Just like its source material, it is intimate and tender, a coming-of-age tale told through meaningful silences and gentle caresses more often than whizz-bang dialogue. But where the book is cool and sharp, the show is dreamier, lingering as it does on hazy afternoon sun spilling across a messy bed, a summer in an Italian villa, closeups of flushed skin.
Normal People upends the usual cliches of teens pining across the class divide: wealthy Marianne Sherridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is prickly, brittle and widely disliked, while lower-middle class Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) is admired by all for his smarts, his athletic prowess, his handsome face. The pair get to know each other as Connell’s young mother cleans Marianne’s family home. Free from the prying eyes of their peers, the two begin a furtive sexual relationship, which reveals a mutual candour both have desperately needed. Connell, expecting ridicule from his friends over the relationship, asks for secrecy; Marianne is damaged enough to accept such terms. This hurtful choice haunts both of them for years to come, even when they leave Sligo behind for Dublin and the power dynamic shifts: at university Marianne is popular, while Connell struggles to make friends.
Like the book, Normal People was both acclaimed and loved, seeing record-breaking numbers on iPlayer, doubling the previous record set by Killing Eve. Somewhere along the line we began talking about Marianne and Connell as if they were real people: “Normal People viewers shocked by full-frontal nudity from both Marianne and Connell,” the Sun gasped, as if both had somehow let everyone down. Connell became the internet’s boyfriend, while his delicate silver chain was elevated to the iconic status of James Dean’s T-shirts, earning both its own song and its own Instagram page. We got guides to cutting a “Marianne fringe”, while fans of the book debated whether TV Marianne was too hot. A “horny cut” of the show’s 22 minutes of sex scenes was repeatedly uploaded, then removed, from porn sites. Even the tiniest elements were scrutinised; the Cut asked the important question: “Is drinking tea sexy now?”
Somehow, none of this ruined it. Script writers Rooney, Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe smartly leave silence for all the things that cannot be said. This show, don’t tell, approach is what the best literature does better than most TV and film; it is why we often feel more moved by a longing glance across a crowded room than feverish lovemaking. (Not that there isn’t plenty of that, particularly skilfully choreographed, too.) But it is the strength of the show that the smallest gestures are what make us wistful: Connell kissing Marianne’s bare shoulder while in full view of their friends, a small win; a gentle smile across a loud dinner table; the touching of foreheads.
We all know the story told in Normal People, if we are lucky, at least once in our lifetimes. The skill required to convey an experience as universal and ineffable as first love is considerable; to convey it honestly, more so. Even for readers of the book, it is hard to watch Connell and Marianne circle each other without feeling a desperate need for them to be together, despite knowing how the story ends. “It’s not like this with other people,” Connell says, in a moment halfway through the series that also encapsulates the whole show. “I know,” Marianne replies. “I think we’ll be fine.”