Sally Rooney’s debut Conversations with Friends was a 2017 literary exception, presenting its author as a “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”. For this reason, her second novel might have been the proof that her fame was overrated. One factor might have been her age – she was born in Castlebar, Ireland in 1991. Instead, her following book Normal People turned out to be even more accomplished, winning the Costa and Irish Book Award and convincing Hulu, BBC and Element Pictures to buy the rights and adapt it into a miniseries.
In spite of the ‘ordinary world’ the title suggests, one real exception about Normal People lies in the many little details that succeed in diverting our expectations as readers. It’s the love story of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal, who was also nominated for an Emmy as Best Actor in a Limited Series), in a relationship that starts in high-school and ends after university. The story has a bildungsroman structure, in as much as it follows the psychological and moral development of the protagonists as they grow up. It is a book apart from the screen adaptations of other teen dramas, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Gossip Girl, and The End of the F***ing World. It’s realistic and socially aware and remains faithful to the written page.
Rooney and Alice Birch (whose past appearances included Succession and Lady Macbeth) worked together on the script and managed to transpose the inner lives of the characters into outward actions. County Sligo on Ireland’s Atlantic coast hosts the first half of the story, while Trinity College in Dublin is the setting of the second one. The social status of their families – Connell’s mother is employed as a cleaner in Marianne’s house – becomes a good reason for their distance from each other, both symbolic and physical. But the real protagonist of the story is the relationship itself: its visual narration of lust, need, passion, gentleness, consent and refusal uses human bodies much more than words, so that a movement, a look or a small gesture always becomes a deeper subtext rarely tuned with dialogue.
The music and directing are compact (Lenny Abrahamson and Stephen Rennicks worked together on Room and Frank) and the sex scenes are subtle and never vulgar. The cinematic eye is pretty distant from the protagonists, leaving them the space they need to know each other, fall in love, fight and reconcile – with a realistic result that recalls movies like Blue Valentine and Like Crazy, more than the psychedelic roughness of Euphoria or the wry irony of Sex Education. Turning thoughts and feelings into something evident is always a difficult challenge, and the show counts some small flaws – the secondary characters get swamped by the couple and the second part of the story seems to lose momentum at times – but Normal People is moving and honest enough to become a rare exception in the TV world.