Once, a woman who works in publishing told me that the metric for a hit book is whether, after reading it, you feel immediately compelled to pass it on. After I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People late last year, I was determined to press it into the hands of everyone I knew; uselessly so, it turned out, because most had already read it and had the same impulse. Rooney has her detractors, many of whom seem more irritated by her preternatural success than by her actual work. The structure of Normal People is also fairly diaphanous, and the ending is maddeningly uncertain. (“I wanted to sue Sally,” one of my co-workers told me.) And on its face, the oscillating relationship between Connell and Marianne, whose intense connection begins in high school, when he’s a popular athlete and she’s an oddball outcast, feels familiar enough. But the story, the characters’ tantalizing proximity to life-changing love and their clumsily human insistence on messing things up—it all felt so addictive, so affirming, so loaded with potential. “JUST LOVE EACH OTHER!” I wanted to scream after virtually every page. Why is that so hard?
Perhaps what polarizes the responses to Normal People is that the book is full of contradictions. It’s a literary romance novel, a familiar post-Millennial coming-of-age story that’s also a Marxism-inflected manifesto of sorts on how love might make the world a bit more equitable. It’s full of sex, but there are no quote-unquote sex scenes—rather, physical and emotional connection are the story, and one can’t be divorced from the other, or from anything else that happens in the book. “I definitely think that my approach to writing about sexuality and sexual intimacy is somewhat at odds with the dominant discourse,” Rooney told me back in January, in an interview to promote Hulu’s new adaptation of Normal People, the first six episodes of which she co-wrote. “And that’s not to say I write about those things to respond to whatever’s the dominant discourse; I don’t at all. But the kinds of sexual experiences I write about are almost exclusively [between people] in very intense, committed relationships. Not that the people are married, but they’re really in each other’s lives. That’s what interests me about intimacy.”
This isn’t necessarily the coolest positioning for a 20-something writer publishing in an era that’s defined by sex positivity. After decades of heteronormativity and works defined by the male gaze, pop culture seems to be more concerned in this moment with broadening cultural portrayals of sex than with really considering romantic intimacy. But there’s something that feels oddly radical about Rooney’s work, and about the 12-episode adaptation of Normal People released yesterday. Stories about love, typically, are epic and unreachable in scale, from Orpheus and Eurydice to The Notebook. Stories about sex, more recently—Sex Education, The Girlfriend Experience—tend to be almost defiantly detached from emotion, as if the two can’t coexist (Outlander is the rare exception, as befits its romance-novel origins).