Four years ago today, Sally Rooney released a novel that would change the face of women’s literature. Wait, let me make this clear, not because she did something literarily ground-breaking (although well-loved), but because she set in motion a plan that would ultimately unknowingly release Paul Mescal onto the world stage, and enlighten the loins of ladies around the world who didn’t know that their loins could be enlightened by a small Irishman in a chain necklace.
Sorry, that sounds a little brutal, but what I’m trying to say here is that I love Paul Mescal, and I really didn’t like Sally Rooney’s work. In fact, I would go so far and say I hated Normal People (the book).
Yes, I know, before all the intellectual English departments from universities around the world come at me foaming at the mouths (‘First she doesn’t like Austen, and now Sally Rooney? Burn her at the stake!), I would just like to kindly say my piece with a little bit of explanation, so if you could just sit down and listen.
I haven’t just read Normal People, okay? I’ve also read Conversations With Friends, and Beautiful World, Where Are You? is on my Unread Shelf, just waiting for me to finally finish To Paradise from Hanya Yanagihara. It’s not like I skim-read one of the chapters in it and decided I didn’t like it. It’s bigger than that.
I just find her characters to be without personality. I know there’s a trend for characters by female writers at the minute to not find worth in their own personalities (the characters, not the writers) and are a little loose (again, the characters), and I found the main character Marianne to be like that, but with the personality of an unseasoned head of cauliflower. Like at least be broccoli, right? Make up your mind; be decisive. The trend of female characters throwing their bodies around while thinking they’re worthless really bothers me; I’m all for women embodying their sexual side – and I think women should sleep with all different types of people, in the same way that we try on all different types of personalities, and in the same way we try out many different hobbies to see what we like – but the trend of these women almost seeing their own selves as an object to be used is not it. Have some agency!
In the novel Marianne enters in a relationship with Lukas that’s sexually abusive, and she knows it doesn’t serve her, but she doesn’t seem to care. Lukas also doesn’t seem to be interested in her either, so I’m unsure why this should even be a plot device – if neither of them cared for each at all, or were even slightly interested in each other, why be together at all? How can she be physically abused, and not care? It’s not like Marianne is afraid of being alone, or feels she deserves it in some way. It seems like Sally Rooney simply entered her into this abusive relationship to make the novel more “interesting”, but instead it’s sent me the other way. This doesn’t equate the same girl who told Connell that she’d kill the teacher who tried to kiss him if she ever came near Connell again. Is she spirited, or is she not?
I’m all about coming-of-age novels. In fact, I still feel like I’m coming of age at the ripe old age of 27! How could I not like coming-of-age novels? I understand that when we grow up, we are desperately searching for our place in the world while being hyper-aware of the social structures around us. Who is cool? Who is well off? Will I be considered weird if I listen to this music or l like this hobby? As social creatures, our entire DNA is wired for us to avoid being ostracized by our community so we can stay living as a pack, and that is never so prevalent in our teen years, especially with all the pressure of deciding what you plan to do for the rest of your life – your career path, your degree, your gap year – while also pretending to dislike things you actually like and like things you dislike. How do you figure out who you are if you’re pretending to be someone else to stay well-regarded in your chosen society? How can you discover that you’re a Taylor Swift fan if all your peers exclusively love Kanye West? It’s a confusing time.
I understand that Connell and Marianne’s relationship is fraught with both externalized social structure and inner confidence (Does he like me? Are we friends? Can we be seen I public together?), but I don’t know if perhaps it all went over my head, but I found the characters in the novel to be lacklustre. What the Guardian calls “witty dialogue,” I found to be sarcastically muted. Perhaps I like things more on the nose, or you might even think that I’m not smart enough to grasp the depth and nuance of their verbal relationship, but even Marianne’s inner monologue I found to be sleepy.
That all changed when I watched the Hulu TV remake. This is one of the few instances where the film version is better than the book in my humble opinion, and it was clear to see it was a success with there being virtually no gripes about the book being superior, and also that the world fell in love with Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, effectively launching their careers into the stratosphere.
Daisy Edgar-Jones is the new English rose on the scene, starring in cannibal-themed thrilled Fresh with Sebastian Stan and being our leading lady Kya in Where The Crawdads Sing (I haven’t had time to get to the cinema yet to see it, so will be interesting to see how it compares to the book), while Paul Mescal starred alongside Dakota Johnson and Olivia Coleman in The Lost Daughter, and is currently filming musical drama Carmen – based off the opera – like the true thespian he is. He’s also dating Phoebe Bridgers, which if you ask me is a huge life achievement. Shout out to Phoebe Bridgers for sharing shirtless pics of Paul when we need them most.
The TV iteration of Normal People was one of the most evocative pieces of TV I have ever watched to this day, expressing self-doubt, lost love, and that awful bittersweet feeling of meeting the right guy at the wrong time – not to mention class commentary. I felt it did away with Rooney’s insipid character personalities and infused a little fire into the characters. Yes, okay, it’s the same story, but I felt the characters had purpose and agency, and felt them genuinely struggle with relatable aspects of their lives, while Rooney was just telling us about it. The TV adaptation made us feel it, which when it comes to book vs. TV, is usually the other way around.
Do I recommend you to read Normal People? Yes, sure, why not? The novel wouldn’t have been as successful as it was if people didn’t enjoy it and think it was worth your time. I rate well-respected novels much higher than high-ranked TV or film due to the active attention it requires. You can put a show on in the background and check on it every few minutes and still enjoy it, but if you don’t sit down and focus on the book you’re reading, you’ll never know what it’s about. People have sat down and delved into Rooney’s work, so I think you should read it, and decide for yourself.
If you’re not a reader however, then that’s a plus for you, because in my one-of-the-most-avid-readers-you-know humble opinion, the book sucks and the TV is one of the best series of telly. The fact that I’ve said that is saying something. Point is: it’s well worth the watch. Come back and tell me what you think. Hot take over.