How the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel uses the narrative of young love to display ideas surrounding class and identity
There are but a few television shows that will come to define this strange period we are living through. One of them involves a bleach blonde mullet and some tigers, and the other is BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Normal People. Initially it felt like a cruel trick that the BBC happened to premiere this heart-smashing series during a period where many of us are alone and, let’s face it, horny. I was at once apprehensive and intrigued to understand the hype.
I am perhaps one of the few young women in England that hasn’t read Rooney’s novel, therefore this review deals only with the TV adaptation. Upon viewing the series, set in the coastal town of Sligo in Ireland, I felt a welcome sense of reflection and nostalgia. I found it to be a tender and at times difficult watch, and one of the most refreshing portrayals of young love I have seen onscreen. The show seems to perfectly capture the feeling of falling freely for another at such a tender age. It captures that feeling of being given something precious, but not quite knowing what to do with it yet, and at times neglecting it.
Paul Mescal’s performance as the handsome and popular, yet anxious Connell perfectly compliments Daisy Edgar Jones’ delicate and bookish yet judicious and at times obnoxious Marianne. I find Edgar Jones’ Marianne warmer than is often insisted that she is — there is far too much youthful tenderness in her eyes. Connell and Marianne exist in the same world, yet are segregated by social differences, in both class and popularity. Connell’s mother is the single parent who cleans for Marianne’s wealthy family. When Connell and Marianne begin to sleep together in secret after school, they begin to walk down a four-year path that neither can turn back from. We watch captivated as they grow into their love, we see their love evolve as they progress through school into university and the start of adult life.
Their conversations involve a lot of frustrated stuttering which results in misunderstandings. This awkwardness is made up for by various forms of non-verbal communications — glances to each other in crowded rooms, slight brushes of hand, and of course, sex. This sacred language is perfectly easy to decipher and sure to have memories of days gone by invading your mind. There is no lack of sex but these scenes are intimate and sophisticated, and the chemistry is tangible. The amount of sex involved is entirely appropriate seeing as we are dealing with the topic of young love, often a rampant affair. It almost makes you want to turn away at times in anticipation of the pain and conflict that seems to be a byproduct of being young and infatuated with someone.
The conflicts that occur are mainly brought on by outside pressures. In his popularity, Connell fears too much about what his peers think, and Marianne has learnt from being an outcast that such worries are frankly futile. Their time together at secondary school reaches a spectacular end when Connell casually mentions that he is taking another girl to ‘the debs’, the high school equivalent of having your heart pulverised.
The episodes are short enough to end before it becomes entirely too much to bear. The length of each episode also compliments the intensity of each encounter, each one feeling as fragmented as teenage memories often do. Although, I did find myself being confused at some stages of the narrative, it felt as though there were some gaps in the story that would be filled by the character’s internal monologues in the book. There are plenty of moments where they stare broodingly out of windows and twiddle their thumbs whilst laying in bed. At times it feels as though the makers of the show assume that the audience is already familiar with the book.
After school, the lovers meet again at Trinity college in Dublin, a hub of intellectualism and site of many a pretentious party. At Trinity, Marianne’s social status has improved. She is suddenly popular and also desired. It is a perfect depiction of the in-between of university, of feeling for the first time that you can reinvent yourself. Marianne and her friends sit around drinking wine, challenging each other’s intellect and philosophising. She fits in well in this new world, whereas Connell struggles with his identity more than ever.
Marianne’s new confidence startles Connell, but her front is consistently broken by his presence. The pair seem to always pull each other back towards their inner selves, even the painful parts. There is a constant unsettled feeling, and we watch frustratingly as outside influences and identity confusion infect the relationship. In one scene, at a friend’s birthday party, Marianne’s intolerably smug friend Jamie asks her if she believes Connell is right for her. This question seems to bring to the fore the worries that Marianne has perhaps secretly had for a while, and is another demonstration of the theme of perception that runs throughout the show. It is as much about the purity of young love as it is about identity and the constructs of society.
I felt the show also depicts wonderfully the issues of identity and class, and how your sense of worth can shift depending on what spaces you come to occupy. Marianne and Connell’s sense of self worth seems to fluctuate at different times, and for Marianne this results in her experimentation with BDSM. Marianne reveals at some point to Connell that her father was abusive in the past, underlining Rooney’s subversion of ideals surrounding class. Marianne may be wealthy, but it is Connell who has a more loving relationship with his mother and ultimately feels more secure and protected by his family.
The narrative also subverts ideas surrounding mental illness. It is Connell that seeks professional help during a bout of severe depression, whilst Marianne deals with her issues less opaquely. During a moving therapy scene, Mescal’s performance is at its most generous. I found this to be one of the best male breakdown scenes I’ve seen on British television and addresses the important issue of mens mental health, a topic that deserves more representation. Connell’s struggle occurs after a friend from home commits suicide, bringing to the fore the confusion that he feels surrounding his identity and a deep grief that could also symbolise the loss of innocence — the end of childhood.
Ultimately I enjoyed this story of young love. Rooney and the writers of the show have used this narrative as a vessel to communicate ideas about class, breakdowns and breakthroughs, and the need to be accepted. The show paints young love as an experience that is painfully delicate and awkward, leaving you battered and bruised, but also an experience that shows you to yourself for the first time and nurtures you into being. It felt frustrating at times, and borders on being morose in parts. But the tenderness and nostalgia that is achieved is undeniably charming.
For me it ended where it needed to, with Marianne encouraging Connell to take a job offer in New York. Here, we see the sacrifice it takes to truly love another person, knowing that at this point staying together might come at the cost of personal growth and opportunity. Another element of young love is the un-meshing from someone else to become the person you’re going to be.
Marianne’s maturity shines through when she states “we have already done so much for one another”, insinuating that they must now release a more well-rounded version of each other into the world. We know that they will forever stand to admire each other from the sidelines, prouder and less possessive than before. As Connell reassures Marianne, it is a love that will likely stand the test of time and a story that will come to capture the hearts of readers and viewers time and time again.