Last year, I wrote an article for this newspaper lambasting the hype surrounding Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People.
I was fed up with being told that Rooney was the voice of my generation, and that Connell and Marianne’s story was the only worthwhile millennial tale out there.
While I maintain that the constant hyperbolic praise for Rooney’s novel lessened my enjoyment of the story itself, even I can’t deny that the television adaptation is a superb piece of work. It’s delicate but immensely powerful, capturing everything that readers loved about the book – an unparalleled insight into the lives of young people in the 21st century.
Much of the discourse surrounding the novel and series concerns its handling of relationships in the modern world. The depiction of Connell and Marianne’s relationship on screen was incredibly real in so many ways, from their awkward first time having sex, to a distraught Marianne telling Connell: “I don’t find it obvious what you want.” The actors were phenomenal, and the production of the series masterfully captured the essence of Rooney’s exploration of sex, infatuation and love, and the interrelationship of those three things.
The show’s strength was its refusal to shy away from the uncomfortable moments in Rooney’s book
However, what was most moving about the TV series was its depiction of life in university. Normal People shatters the myth that your college years are the best of your life, and bluntly shows Connell and Marianne’s late teens and early 20s as most people experience them: awkward, lonely and often painful.
The later episodes were, at times, quite upsetting, but the show’s strength was its refusal to shy away from the uncomfortable moments in Rooney’s book. When characters cry, they don’t weep gracefully like so many incidents in TV shows and films – their pain was unpolished and unfiltered, blotched faces and all. For those of us with delusions of a college utopia that never came to be, it was a welcome portrayal of real life.
When I first heard that Rooney’s novel was being adapted for television, I raised an eyebrow. It’s slow moving, focusing on character rather than plot, and much of it develops through the characters’ own thoughts and reflections. But the series shows that college is exactly that: monotonous, unexciting, solitary. Long shots of Connell on his own and conversations between characters with little substance show that college is often uneventful, even boring, as enjoying yourself becomes a non-essential activity between coursework and a job.
But it’s in these moments that Connell and Marianne learn more about themselves and each other. So many of us come to college with the sugary intent of “finding ourselves”, and are left with a feeling of emptiness or disappointment when ordinary life gets in the way. There was no eureka moment, no one point where everything fell into place.
In the early episodes, Connell and Marianne, as well as their peers, are clueless teenagers who think they are on the precipice of their prime. For them, college is a magical, faraway land, where the social politics of small towns don’t exist. But as we see through Connell, it’s as easy to feel out of place in a large college like Trinity as it is in a small secondary school.
Sitting in tutorials listening to debates between people who seem so much more articulate, so much more intelligent, so much more suited to Trinity than you do – it’s a feeling shared by so many Trinity students, and yet most other depictions of Trinity in media and popular culture scarcely mention it.
Many of us come to college with the sugary intent of “finding ourselves”, and are left with a feeling of emptiness or disappointment
That Normal People aired in the middle of lockdown in Ireland was strangely fitting, given that many of us were consigned to our family homes, forced to return to routines and ways of life we thought we had left behind. Connell’s heartbreaking monologue in the counselling session – where he talks about never being able to go back to his old life, yet feeling unhappy in his new one – was, for many, a painfully accurate articulation of the loneliness that comes with college.
That scene deeply resonated with me, and I didn’t even leave home for college. During lockdown, I found myself racking my brains trying to think of someone in my five kilometre radius that I was still in contact with and could go for a walk with. Like Connell, I am resigned to my home being somewhere I don’t belong, without ever believing that I belong in Trinity.
Many viewers will have been shocked at Rob’s suicide, but its effect on Connell was just as upsetting. However, the rawness of his grief and depression is a step in the right direction in conversations about men’s mental health. Again, seeing an archetypal GAA lad break down in a counselling session is a reality that many of us know exists, but few know how to start a conversation about it.
Normal People made for heavy watching at times, but was strangely comforting in its ability to present college life as most people experience it. For many college students, in Trinity and beyond, the mundanity of the whole thing feels wrong, like we’re not enjoying ourselves enough. The TV series did an excellent job of gently telling us that in fact, not living the dream is fairly normal after all.