The Irresistible Intimacy of Normal People

The Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel ushers an addictive, messily human portrayal of young love to the small screen.

Hulu / The Atlantic

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.”

He’s a popular athlete and she’s an oddball outcast, but they stumble into a life-changing love. (Hulu)

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).

Normal People is different. Rooney’s Marxist politics are sometimes critiqued for being glibly dropped into conversations between relatively privileged characters, and yet these arguments miss how love, in her works, is its own kind of capital, given and taken as needs require. That doesn’t mean it exists in a vacuum. “Certainly something that I’m trying to accomplish in my work, in my two novels and in the show and the novel I’m writing now, is to try and situate love and romance in all its overwhelming power—and all the pleasure and desire that comes with that—in the difficult complexity of ordinary life,” Rooney said. “To take the mundane, unglamorous difficulty that we all have just being alive, and to allow romance to infiltrate that, and not be dishonest to either aspect.” Normal People isn’t the stuff of pure fantasy, even though the emotional generosity it imagines, the redemptive connection between two people, feels rare enough in a contemporary work of art to qualify it as such.

Rooney is often compared to Jane Austen for the ways in which her work depicts human relationships being influenced by the socioeconomic realities in which they play out. Inequality exists; so do arbitrary hierarchical frameworks that complicate emotion. At the beginning of Normal People, set in 2011, Marianne and Connell are in their final year of high school in a small town in Ireland. Marianne’s father is dead, her mother is wealthy but pathologically cold, and her older brother is abusive. Connell’s mother, who had him as a teenager, is poor but kind and extremely loving; she works for Marianne’s mother as a cleaner. At school, Connell is well liked while Marianne is awkward, odd, and ostracized. Both are mocked for not behaving in ways that conform to gender stereotypes: Connell’s “excruciating attempts at tenderness” with his previous girlfriends are relayed around school, while Marianne’s strangeness, the rumors that she doesn’t shave her legs, make her “an object of disgust.”

In the TV series, whose first six episodes are directed by the Oscar-nominated Lenny Abrahamson (Room), the connection between Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) is both innate and negotiated. Abrahamson often films the characters from behind to show the viewer their perspective; he zooms all the way in to their faces so that their eyes and mouths dominate the screen, making the people watching complicit in the heightened sense of intimacy. The duo are instinctively drawn to each other, but their differences in status get in the way. “It’d be awkward in school if something happened with us,” Connell tells Marianne one day at her house, even as they inch closer and closer to each other. Marianne looks down, then takes a step toward him and holds his gaze. “No one would have to know,” she says.

“Certainly something that I’m trying to accomplish in my work … is to try and situate love and romance in all its overwhelming power … in the difficult complexity of ordinary life.” — Sally Rooney (Hulu)

In losing Rooney’s internal monologues for each character, the show rests on the chemistry between the two actors, and their ability to convey wordlessly what each character is thinking. On-screen, Edgar-Jones and Mescal generate so much intensity that any scene without the two of them almost feels like an affront. After reading the book and preparing scenes for her audition, Edgar-Jones told me, “it really wasn’t until I met Paul and we did that chemistry read that I really understood their relationship, because that’s so key, the way they ping off each other.” Mescal was cast first; when Edgar-Jones came to read, he told me, “it just felt like we weren’t saying the lines; we were communicating what the scene was. And I could tell by the response from the room that it wasn’t about an audition anymore.”

From the beginning of the show, the extraordinary and the ordinary commingle. The connection between Connell and Marianne is instantaneous and magnetic, but their interactions can be just as awkward, uncomfortable, and mediated by circumstance as those of any new couple. After he kisses her for the first time, she laughs. The first time she comes to his house, on the mutual understanding that they’re going to sleep together, the pair stand nervously in the hallway before he offers her a drink and she sweetly asks for a cup of tea. It’s her first time, but not his, and the way the scene plays out is both electric to watch and a model in how to ask for consent. “Is that okay?” Connell asks. “Is this what you want? ... If you want to stop or anything, we can obviously stop.” He doesn’t always treat Marianne perfectly, Edgar-Jones said, but “the scene where she loses her virginity is, I think, brilliant. Not many shows show that, the respect and the kindness and the givingness, the softness with which he treats her.”

Everything about the scene feels designed to be different. It’s positioned not at the end of an episode, where climactic sexual encounters usually go, but at the beginning of the second half-hour installment. Other series about teenagers having sex are either caustically cynical, such as HBO’s Euphoria, or cheerily blasé, such as Netflix’s Sex Education, in which the main character loses his virginity while blackout drunk and chooses not to be perturbed by it. In Normal People, Marianne’s first time is consensual but significant—not because of what it symbolizes, but because it’s so obviously pleasurable and driven by nothing but desire.

On-screen, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal generate so much intensity that any scene without the two of them almost feels like an affront. (Hulu)

As the story goes on, Marianne and Connell come apart, then together, then apart again, usually because of a failure of communication. When both leave home to attend Trinity College Dublin, Marianne (by virtue of her family’s money) effortlessly glides into place, while Connell feels newly destabilized. The brevity of the episodes (they run from 19 to 30 minutes) mimics the structure of Rooney’s book, which offers interludes into Connell’s and Marianne’s lives, rather than trying to capture the totality of both. Their relationship is the force that sustains the story, not anything specific that might happen. When Connell becomes seriously depressed, Marianne, over Skype, watches him all night while he sleeps. After Marianne embarks on a destructive, masochistic relationship while studying abroad in Sweden, Connell emails her. “You are a good person, and I say that as someone who truly knows you,” he writes. “Just because people treat you badly, and I include myself in that by the way, doesn’t mean you deserve to be treated badly.”

The question of what people deserve, what they might require from one another as human beings, is fundamental to both Normal People the book and the TV series. As Annalisa Quinn wrote for The Atlantic in her review of the novel, the book’s characters “have different things at different times: money, social capital, looks. The novel suggests the possibility of a setup in which these advantages are shared and redistributed according to need. Call it a Marxism of the heart.” In one scene in the show, Marianne gets her period after a wretched weekend with her family. When Connell asks if he can get her anything, she looks momentarily stunned by the idea that he might do something for her for no reason other than to make her feel better. And the bumps and roadblocks in their relationship tend to arise when neither is able to tell the other what they actually need, assuming instead that those needs are transparent. “I think it’s pretty obvious that I don’t want you to leave,” Connell tells Marianne late in the show. “I don’t find it obvious what you want,” she replies.

But more than they hurt each other, Connell and Marianne add to each other’s lives in a way that softens the inequality of their varying experiences. Regardless of how you might interpret the ending of Rooney’s story, her message is a fundamentally hopeful one: The kind of intimacy her characters have achieved has enriched them forever. Their love story can’t be reduced to a happy ending or a tragedy, a funny adventure or a source of regret. “My feeling,” Rooney said, “is that what is really intrinsically human is the ability to love and sacrifice yourself for another person. Of course human beings can be violent and cruel and domineering and oppressive. But they can also be very loving and tender. That is what I’m attached to, and that is what informs my socialism and my egalitarian principles—the belief that without constraints we can actually love each other.”