By Madeline Sidgwick
“I found it all moving and emotionally wrecking, in the best way.” James Poniewozik perfectly articulates my feelings upon discovering Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People. I came across Normal People after reading Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends, which I consumed in two sittings, and was hoping to have the same gut-wrenching connection to the characters – I was more than pleasantly surprised. The bildungsroman arc follows Marianne and Connell from their final years of high school, through university, and into adulthood, both individually and within their ever-fluctuating relationship. Rooney perfectly depicts the anxieties, changes (both positive and negative), and frustrations of this period of life. The character-driven plot allows readers not only to relate to the characters and their experiences, but also to become frustrated as Rooney makes a point of presenting their flaws.
As teenagers Connell and Marianne experience contrasting worlds despite being at the same high school, sporty and popular Connell enjoys the benefits of the teenage hierarchies I am sure we are all aware of. In juxtaposition, Marianne is condemned by her peers for being a ‘try-hard’ and thus her standoffish attitude often leaves her character in isolation. Rooney illustrates how such differences in ‘social statuses’ become toxic as the two begin a secret relationship – secret of course, in order to prevent damaging Connell’s ‘street credit.’ Bringing together such realistic immaturities presents the pair’s dynamics as all too relatable to any reader who has ever attended secondary school. Rooney, however, adds another strain on the youngsters’ love by providing Marianne with the upper hand in regards to economic status (Connell’s mother being the household employee of Marianne’s mother). We take such awkward hierarchies as a challenge in relationships, and somehow must understand during adolescence that suppressing feelings to adhere to either the opinions of classmates or parents results in emotional confusion – a bitter pill that 16-year-old me certainly had to swallow.
I think we can all agree that university brings about maturity and change. Thus, as one tension dissolves between the protagonists, another quickly develops as Rooney eloquently illustrates the intensity of such a developmental stage in life. The contrasting worlds that the university proposes to Rooney’s protagonists is something I found refreshing. Marianne flourishes in escaping an enclosed, often claustrophobic small-town life; creating a new identity for herself enables Marrianne to better explore her personality, providing viewers and readers with the iconic line “Classic me – I came to college and got pretty.” This is juxtaposed with Connell’s struggle against the overwhelming social newness that leaving home comforts brings about. Rooney is able, then, to drive the plot with her characters’ vulnerabilities, allowing readers to relate when feeling alienated to such ‘normal’ experiences.
I was skeptical when approaching the BBC TV adaptation of Rooney’s novel, but frankly I could not have been more wrong in my pessimism. The use of cinematography and soundtrack to accurately reflect the raw portrayal of anxiety, sex and coming of age, to me, did justice to Connell and Marianne’s depiction. Both Paul Mescal (Connell) and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne) convey the normality buried within such complex feelings. Mescal’s performance stood out to me in presenting audiences with a raw depiction of Connell’s mental health struggles. The depiction of societal pressures surrounding ‘masculinity’ is presented heart-wrenchingly through Mescal’s conviction to emotional vulnerability as a “lads’ lad”: “Lately he’s consumed by a sense that he is in fact two separate people, and soon he will have to choose which person to be on a full-time basis and leave the other person behind.”
Rooney’s novel therefore presents, with great accuracy, the progression from adolescence to adulthood in a way that is intensely real – perhaps too much so for young readers. Poniewozik’s New York times review of the novel encapsulates my connection to the plot; “the necessary wrenching process of breaking down the person you were in order to become the person you are going to be,” something that is perfectly presented in ‘Normal People’, and thus defines the natural emotional connection to Rooney’s words that readers feel.