17 July 2020

Normal People by Sally Rooney

I have been waiting to post this review because I wanted to finish watching the BBC/Hulu TV adaptation first. I spent three weeks refreshing the iTunes store so I could purchase it since Canadian's don't have access to Hulu. And then, finally, the series started streaming two episodes at a time on CBC Gem. I started reading Sally Rooney's acclaimed Normal People before the pandemic hit, and finished it on the heels of quarantine. Both the book and the TV series ripped my heart into pieces.

Disturbingly enough, Sally Rooney is the same age as Meg and I. She was born in the western Ireland in February 1991. Normal People is mostly set in Dublin, at Trinity College, but it starts off in a smaller Irish city. The book is split between two characters who meet in high school and then reconnect when they are studying at Trinity. Their story is set over ~5 years as they come in and out of each other's lives.

Marianne is well-off and very smart, but she's a bit of a loner at school. Connell is working class and pretty popular at school. He was raised by a single mother who is employed by Marianne's family as a cleaner for their house. The class difference is subtly brought up throughout the book, but in a way that feels really modern.

You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget."

Sally Rooney
Writing this review has been interesting because I always start by typing the quotations I liked and saved in my phone while reading the book. It seems I loved Rooney's descriptions of Marianne the most, which makes sense given the thing this book does best is create two fully realized central characters.

She's missing some primal instinct, self-defense or self-preservation, which makes other human beings comprehensible. You lean in expecting resistance, and everything just falls away in front of you."

Marianne and Connell are both depressed in kind of different ways. Marianne grows up witnessing a lot of physical abuse and then deals with mostly verbal abuse from her older brother. She feels completely undeserving of love or any positive attention. Connell has a great relationship with his mother but clearly cannot communicate who he really is or how he is feeling to most people around him.

a scene from BBC/Hulu's Normal People
My experience reading the book was not what I was expecting going into it. As I started reading I remember thinking "what's the big deal?" I had bought the book because I saw so many people posting about it and adding it to their favourite reads of the year. But as I kept reading I became more and more invested in the story's relationship and ended up reading the last ~100 pages in one sitting... with tears literally streaming down my cheeks the entire time.

Afterwards I felt so weirdly moved by the book that I went for a walk and couldn't even listen to a podcast because I didn't want to break my concentration... sappy, but true.

Now for the BBC/Hulu adaptation ...

Is the world such an evil place, that love should be indistinguishable from the basest and most abusive forms of violence?"

This will very likely be my favourite TV show of 2020. I tried so hard to stretch it out and not binge it all in one sitting. I tried to keep it to just two episodes a week, but ended up watching it over 14 days - which honestly still feels like an accomplishment. The first half of the show was directed by Irishman Lenny Abrahamson who did the movie Room. The show is beautifully shot, but it's honestly the PERFECT performances from newcomers Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. Their faces are so painfully expressive, and the way they communicate their pain without saying anything is truly amazing ... I can't say enough good things. They will single-handedly destroy the Emmy's, and deserve every possible award.

Paul Mescal (Connell) and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne) ... even looking at this image of them on set makes me EMOTIONAL
Don't just read the book or only watch the TV series. Enjoy both! They are both so good and so moving and I can't recommend either enough. I immediately bought Rooney's Conversations With Friends and just last week they announced it will also be turned into a miniseries. I truly cannot wait...


  1. This review saved me the question of "Should I still watch the TV series after reading?'

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