From The Paris Review:
“You are not the first of my patients to mention that,” my omnipotent therapist said when I sat on her couch and voiced some deep-seated feelings about the film adaptation of André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. Funny how the best and worst thing your psychologist can say to you is the same. Here was the coach of my tenderest soul saying that I was not unique in the world—how dare she! On the other hand, maybe it would be nice not to be alone. Reading Normal People by Sally Rooney and then watching the very convincing Hulu adaptation, to be released today, I wondered if that was the spell of this story as well. Rooney addresses the contradiction again and again: the fundamental tension between being independent and needing to be understood, between wanting to be uncategorizable and wanting to belong.
Before I watched the series, with only the novel throwing light motes on my subconscious, I wondered if there were oceans of young reading women who saw themselves in the prickly character of Marianne. Certainly, the book found many fans—enough to push it into seven editions, reach almost 500,000 copies in the UK and 76,000 in Ireland, and sell translation rights into forty-one languages before adaptation. Or if Rooney was a convincing enough author to pull that most astounding trick, of making the lives of any individuals feel relatable on a grand scale.
Normal People is a pas de deux: a boy and a girl take turns misunderstanding each other as the novel follows them from their senior year in high school to their senior year of college. Their deep physical compatibility is derailed by a series of small misconceptions. The story is a kind of minimalist millennial antidote to the theatrical impossibility of the epics of my youth: Cider House Rules, Cold Mountain, Snow Falling on Cedars, dining on the idea that a tiny misunderstanding can cause ripples of heartache.
While both characters are almost supernaturally intelligent, Marianne is affluent, lonely, and deemed physically unappealing in high school, while Connell is working class, deeply knit into a friend group, and a golden athlete. They begin a physical relationship that quickly becomes emotional, but Connell, plagued by social anxiety, sees their love as an impossibility. They keep the romance a secret at his request, and it becomes an imbalance they spend years trying to correct—as they both come to see the subterfuge differently. Connell’s devotion to the “normal” splits them up, but not before Marianne persuades him to pursue a degree in English at Trinity, where they meet again for Act 2. In college, their roles are reversed. Marianne flourishes— in college she is normal—easily playing the confident intellectual, and Connell is at sea among the entitled students of Trinity, where the social code—once so important—is not clear to him. When they are together they are alone together—a bande à part—but if you are defying all the rules, how do you know which way is up? If you are starting from scratch, how do you say hello? What kept my heart pounding is how a couple so deep in love could fail to find the words for each other or, having them, fail to say them.
Link to the rest at The Paris Review