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.” Those 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.

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.

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.

You Decide

  1. “You’re so normal.” Is this a compliment, an insult, or neither?

Activities

  1. What is normal anyway? Draw a mind map of all the words, fashions and activities that you associate with being normal.

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 its 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.
Social animals
Those animals – including humans – that interact highly with other animals, usually of their own species.
Unconventional
Unusual; not based on what is generally done or believed.

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