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How Normal People Captures a Hyper-Aware Romance

The Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel centers on two very connected, very guarded lovers.

Enda Bowe/Hulu

In the three years since her first novel was published, the 29-year-old Irish writer Sally Rooney has been called variously “the Jane Austen of the precariat,” “Salinger for the Snapchat generation,” the author of “an Instagram status symbol.” These effusions tend to emphasize that she is young, she understands being online, and she can write extremely well about being young and understanding being online. As critics before me have noted, there is something diminishing in this assessment, an insinuation that because Rooney is not yet 30, there must be some secret to her prowess beyond sentence-level mastery; that she “gets the internet” and therefore has unlocked some hidden level of literary fame.

Rooney’s books are not really about email or social media, or anything so blatant as that. What she evokes is a life in which those things are so commonplace that no one really talks about them anymore. Her books—2017’s Conversations With Friends, followed by 2019’s Normal People—are more than anything about forging relationships in a world full of mediations and distractions, in which you are not only hyperaware of your own responses to stimuli but immediately distrustful of them, anticipating the world’s reactions almost at the same time that you metabolize your own. Her characters are overanalytical but succinct, able to condense an entire evening’s worth of emotional overload into a devastating text message. They are also deeply horny, being mostly teenagers and young college students, thrust into a bleak and terrifying world but still determined to find affection there.

The opening of Normal People conveys the heat-guided accuracy of Rooney’s larger project. Connell, a brawny, working-class high school senior living in the fictional town of Carricklea in Ireland, shows up after school at the tony home of Marianne, where his mother works as a housekeeper. Connell is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Marianne, a mousy classmate who is hated by everyone at school, not because she is rich but because she is the loner intellectual, defiantly uninterested in the typical high school pecking order. He stares at her as she licks a spoon of chocolate spread in her kitchen, and he thinks about the way his popular, athletic friends see her:

She wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face. People have said she doesn’t shave her legs or anything. Connell once heard that she spilled chocolate ice cream on herself in the school lunchroom, and she went to the girls’ bathrooms and took her blouse off to wash it in the sink. That’s a popular story about her, everyone has heard it.

And yet, Connell likes Marianne. “He dreads being left alone with her like this,” Rooney writes, “but he also finds himself fantasizing about things he could say to impress her.” He finds himself in a maelstrom of peer pressure and reputation management, anticipating the potential outcomes of interacting with Marianne. He knows how things spread, how rumors start. But he is also beginning to attune himself to his own desires and trying to untangle them from the outside world.

Rooney herself was raised a bit askew from her peers: as a Marxist and a champion debater, a Marianne among the Connells. She has talked about her perverse fascination with services like Instagram and Twitter as more anthropological than anything. One of her literary trademarks is an almost ascetic level of restraint; she captures shifting social dynamics in precise, limpid sentences. It’s hard to imagine these subtleties drawn out in any form other than the novel, yet, at a moment when streaming services have supercharged the demand for television drama, a work as celebrated as Rooney’s is almost fated to end up on the screen.

Hulu’s adaptation of Normal People, one quickly learns, is very quiet television. It begins with a slow shot of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) walking through the halls of her high school, her long French braid behind her. She passes Connell (Paul Mescal) in the hall and briefly meets his eye. In the next scene, she stares silently out of the window during class, and her teacher chastises her for daydreaming. “I wasn’t aware my eyeline fell under the jurisdiction of school rules,” she says. When the teacher presses her, she tells him not to kid himself: “I have nothing to learn from you.” The retort deepens her reputation as a pariah and a snob, unable and unwilling to play by the same rules as her classmates. As such, she has to sit and stew, marinating in her own self-righteousness.

Only Connell seems to see this act as bold. The attraction between them is clear, and clearly confusing for both. For Connell, being with Marianne would be (at least in his perception) social suicide, but is thrilling in its transgressiveness. For Marianne, being with Connell would be a way to explore her sexuality, a distraction from her provincial boredom. She’s wealthy, but far from untroubled: Her mother, an uptight executive—complete with statement jewelry, dark suits, and taut, boardroom-appropriate hair—more or less ignores her except to make cruel jabs at her looks; her older brother is abusive, as was her late father. Connell is equally lonely, a jock who secretly prefers to read novels. With Marianne, Connell can be smart. With Connell, Marianne can feel desired. And so, at the end of the first episode, they strike a strange deal: They will begin a romance, but keep it entirely secret.

If this sounds like a wholly unsatisfying arrangement, well, that’s exactly what it turns out to be. Marianne grows weary of hiding and being snubbed. When Connell invites a more popular girl to “The Debs,” the Irish version of prom, despite the fact that he is sleeping with Marianne most afternoons, she hits a breaking point. As Marianne, Edgar-Jones holds herself at a stern remove, even from the camera; she often sits in profile, or with her back facing the frame. The moment Marianne stands up for herself, somewhere around episode three, is not loud or full of bombast. She simply stops replying to Connell’s texts, and that is that.

The first three episodes of Normal People are not showy. Lenny Abrahamson (who directed the film Room, and directs the first six episodes of Normal People) casts a blue-green light over the actors, whose performances are, for the most part, surprisingly understated. Carricklea serves as a drab backdrop, a region of abandoned construction projects and gray skies, for Marianne and Connell’s romance. Meanwhile, the show is far more explicit than the novel about the sexual electricity between its characters, with several protracted sex scenes, in which the camera focuses heavily on nudity and eye contact. At the end of the third episode, after Marianne has stopped replying to his messages, Connell walks home alone from The Debs and breaks down crying in the street. He realizes too late the mistake he has made with Marianne; she has decided that self-abasement in the service of feeling desired is not the same thing as knowing real love.

The show starts to pick up in episode four, when we zoom ahead to see Marianne and Connell, now students at Trinity College. All the power dynamics have reversed. Marianne is now popular, and she’s dating a posh jerk. She has a clique of talkative friends, a chic lob cut, and a gamine wardrobe. Connell is struggling and lonely, working at a grocery store and lost among the other students with whom he shares a flat. It is not until he runs into Marianne at a party, drawing on a cigarette and looking like a lead in a Godard film, that he shows signs of life.

The moment that Mescal and Edgar-Jones spot each other again seems to hover in time: You know they will get back together, and you also know that their affair, like most that begin with conditions, is ultimately doomed. Whereas Connell was hiding Marianne before, now she is the one keeping their sex life separate from her bourgeois coterie. At one point, as they lie naked together, Marianne says, “I think I was starting to have feelings for you there at one point,” and starts to laugh. Connell continues the joke. “You just have to repress all that stuff, Marianne,” he says. “That’s what I do anyway.”

The fascination of Normal People is not passion but disassociation. Marianne and Connell’s relationship is not so much on-again-off-again as it exists in a new and very modern state of being simultaneously always on and always off. They are both connected and isolated, running on parallel tracks, always missing each other even when they are in constant communication. Even though this is a mode I instantly recognize from being in the world now—this sense of being always available and also fiercely guarded in the same breath—I’ve never seen a love story like it on television before.