Not that there’s an issue with this. It would be unfair to assume that any story written about love is an unimaginative regurgitation of what has come before.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where Sally Rooney’s novel, Normal People, falls on the spectrum of the romance narrative. There is a boy and a girl; there is sex; there is love; but these elements act as a vessel in which Rooney drives her study on modern life and love through the interiority of her characters, and her anti-linear narrative structure.
The tropes of a romance novel are evident, yet it has been hailed as a complicated and bleak – but invasively realistic – portrayal of millennial love. This familiarity perhaps explains why the novel and the recent BBC adaptation have been immensely popular.
Rooney does not shy away from themes surrounding the human condition, from love, to shame, to desire, to frailty. Her writing is reminiscent of the literary modernists of the early twentieth century: more concerned with the human experience rather than contrived plot. The impact of this form causes readers to become introspective, and think deeply about how we live our lives and how we live with others, whether one wants to or not.
And within this multi-layered literary package comes the equally complex Marianne. The leading lady, seemingly unconcerned about what others think in order to protect herself, actually craves acceptance and love whilst battling the wounds and residual effects of school bullies and her abusive household.
Rooney paints a portrait of someone who is an ‘object of disgust at school’, and who good humouredly observes her physical transformation and social acceptance as ‘classic me. Came to college and got pretty.’
Whilst this wry dialogue works in the novel, TV Marianne is a far cry from her unpalatable literary double. Unsurprisingly for television, she is portrayed by a conventionally beautiful actress and dressed in stylish knitwear. As a result, the essence of her character is tarnished and this transformation is diluted and unconvincing as it is facilitated superficially, in the shedding of her school uniform and applying some make-up.
Despite this, the overarching pain that defines her character is consistent, one of the most powerful manifestations of this being in how Connell, the male lead, initially sees her, treats her and ultimately humiliates her. Although he eventually redeems himself, it is formative in how Marianne views herself and how she enacts love and sex in later relationships.
The genesis of their relationship is a love letter to the ecstasy of modern dating, embracing sex as the first form of contact before committing to emotional intimacy. It captures the contradictions of sex: their physical compatibility versus the discordance in their personality and class.
Connell vies to keep it swathed in secrecy, pinning external pressure and his social reputation as a higher priority than Marianne’s feelings, even describing his attraction to Marianne as ‘perverse.’
Yet somehow, we still root for Connell. We even empathise with him, and almost understand his reasoning for not inviting Marianne to the school dance. As a reader, it’s easy to point the finger and act as an omniscient judge of the behaviour of these characters. But how many of us were our true, authentic selves in high school? How often were we willingly open about our feelings for another person?
Rooney confronts us with our lived experiences, investigating a person’s inner monologue surrounding relationships. She explores shame and the performative nature of sex when a person heavily relies on external validation. Marianne’s defiant, cold exterior is the anomaly, before we learn of her inner turmoil.
The couple dance around each other for the entirety of the novel; non-committal in their affection for one another, and ardently protecting themselves upon miscommunications. Laced throughout this, we learn how Marianne navigates her sex life as an adult.
The various partners she has, besides Connell, are progressively darker and abusive, as Marianne’s despondency and lack of self-worth intensifies. The TV show censors her bleak sex by offering her agency in her BDSM relationships, whereas the novel blurs the lines between consent and force.
Her desire to be hit and choked comes from a life of being demeaned, and her insecurity reaches its peak after asking Connell to hit her during sex, to which he is uncomfortable, labelling it weird. Her devastating reaction of “you think I’m weird” encapsulates her fear of being the abhorrent teenager from school, that even Connell was ashamed to be seen with, and magnifies her confused desperation for acceptance and degradation.
Marianne is deeply troubled, formulating a public persona to guard her from pain. But do these complex emotions display themselves elsewhere in Normal People?
Generally speaking, for a modern novel, Rooney falters in her representation of other women throughout the narrative. She presents blatant dichotomies that imply a lack of thought or depth went into creating supporting characters.
It is most apparent in the mothers of the story: Lorraine, the loving, protective support system for Marianne versus Denise, the unsmiling, fierce figure who resents her daughter for escaping their dark household.
A similar contrast is evident in Marianne’s college friends: the outgoing, stylish Peggy, whose main concern is to marry rich, and Joanna, plain-looking and Marianne’s intellectual equal.
We are told how to respond to these characters by the category of ‘woman’ to which they have been allocated. With Marianne embodying the depth of a human, the other women are reduced to stereotypes, characterised by one-dimensional dialogue and behaviour.
Even Rooney’s representation of men is problematic. Although Connell’s softer masculinity is a breath of fresh air, as the author carefully depicts his battle with depression and social anxiety, he is put into direct contrast with Marianne’s bitter, vengeful older brother, Alan, who replicates his father’s abusive behaviour.
Connell becomes Marianne’s saviour at the end of the novel, threatening Alan and rescuing her from the household. It tugs on the heartstrings of the reader, as we have rooted for this relationship from the start, but it is incongruous with Connell’s quiet, thoughtful manner that has dominated the narrative until this point.
Although not quite aligning with the tone of the rest of the story, perhaps Rooney is making light of the genre by including a knight in shining armour moment as a nod to traditional romantic fairy tales. Who doesn’t love a bit of unapologetic love, right?
The novel, as a whole, is a depressingly accurate portrayal of our tendency as human beings to shield our emotions to protect us from others. Rooney paints life for Marianne and Connell as a pattern of miscommunication, validation seeking and emotional despair, whilst their love is a subtle backdrop of the text. We root for them and we are furious with them, but it is a modern love story, where you cannot look away, and to which so many of us can relate.