A millennial love story for ‘Normal People’

Realistic: The relationship between Connell and Marianne is praised as true-to-life. © BBC

Do ‘normal people’ exist? The 2018 literary sensation by Irish author Sally Rooney has been turned into a 12-part TV drama. What’s all the fuss about and what does it mean to be normal anyway?

“Perfect.” “Breathtaking.” “Abnormally brilliant.” These are some of the snap reviews of the new BBC dramatisation of Normal People. The first episode aired last night, but thanks to iPlayer and the lockdown, diehard fans stayed up late to binge-watch all 12 episodes.

The show is based on the bestselling, award-winning novel by Sally Rooney and follows the lives of the socially awkward Marianne and the athletic, good-looking Connell, from school to university.

And their relationship status? It’s complicated.

This is no fairytale love story. Normal People has touched a nerve with its brutally realistic and truthful portrayal of growing up, leaving home, and falling in love. Readers describe how Marianne and Connell’s anxious, embarrassed, confused relationship is “just like life”.

But it’s also a story about being normal. At school, Marianne is a misfit – she doesn’t do what everyone else does. She’s not “normal”. Connell, meanwhile, tries to blend in. At university, the roles are reversed. Marianne becomes popular and Connell struggles to find his place.

For such a simple word, normal has incredible power over our lives. There are times when we are desperate to be treated like everyone else. Students have fought for the right to be seen as normal. In Sally Rooney’s novel, being made to feel abnormal makes Marianne and Connell lonely, anxious, and depressed.

But at other times, the last thing we want is to be a ‘normie’. We want to be creative, celebrate what makes us different and unique, and shape our own identities.

One of the big ideas in Normal People is that we can never really know what normality is. Stuck inside our own heads, all we see is the confused mess of our own thoughts. Other people look happy, popular, and worry-free. But inside, they are just like us. And maybe that is what it really means to be normal.

So, do normal people exist?

New normal

Yes, of course they do. We are social animals and we like to be part of a group – to move in herds for safety. We recognise immediately if someone doesn’t fit in or stands out. So like it or loathe it, in any situation we always know who the normal people are. They are the majority and the mainstream: those who are most comfortable with life’s rules and standards.

No, they only exist in our heads. We only see a small slice of other people’s lives and none of their internal thoughts. So, we don’t always see the unusual and unconventional things other people get up to when they’re not ‘being normal’. And we can’t see their self-doubt, their frustration, and anxiety when they’re trying to act normal. Normal doesn’t really exist, yet the idea can be very harmful.

You Decide

  1. “You’re so normal.” Is this a compliment, an insult, or neither?
  2. Is there more pressure at school to be normal than there used to be?

Activities

  1. What is normal anyway? Draw a mind map of all the words, fashions, activities that you associate with being normal.
  2. Write a short story about two people who like each other but think the other person doesn’t like them. Try to really get inside both their heads. Does the story have a happy ending?

Some People Say...

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”

Alfred Adler (1870-1937), Austrian psychologist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Normal is an ambiguous word with several meanings – which is why it’s such a powerful idea. It can be used to describe the average. For example, normal people eat lunch at 1pm. But it can also mean popular or most numerous. For example, normal people like football. But in the 19th Century, scientists began to talk about normal and abnormal bodies and minds – from which we get the idea of normal as healthy and correct.
What do we not know?
All this confusion makes it very difficult to decide what type of ‘normal’ we’re talking about. It is important to note that Ireland was traditionally a religiously conservative society, but is becoming increasingly more liberal and secular. Conservatives tend to associate being normal with good and moral society, whilst liberals are more likely to celebrate diversity.

Word Watch

Sally Rooney
Normal People was her second novel and was voted 2018 Waterstones’ Book of the Year and Best Novel at the 2018 Costa Book Awards. Normal People has been described as the “first great millennial love story”.
Relationship
Readers describe Marianne and Connell as having a “situationship”, something that is more than friendship but hasn’t been explicitly labelled as a relationship. They are certainly not boyfriend and girlfriend!
Misfit
Marianne ignores the rules and is not interested in being popular. She doesn’t like sport or music, but enjoys reading and big ideas, and she is bullied for standing out.
Right
In the 1960s, African American students fought for the right to attend the same schools and colleges as white students. In the UK, disability activists have campaigned to make schools accessible to everyone.
Normie
A pejorative term for someone with conventional, mainstream, popular tastes and ideas.

Subjects

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