Normal People: A Millenial Love Story
Updated: May 26
In late March I sat at LaGuardia airport. I was leaving New York to get away from the new pandemic. I misjudged the severity of the situation, still adhering to the get-to-the-airport-early notion, thinking there would still be a lot of traffic on the road and people in the airport. When I arrived way too early, I was saddened by the vacant security line and near empty terminal. I felt very much alone. As I waited for my flight, I continued my reading of The Lord of the Rings but as much as I love it, I couldn’t focus on Frodo’s journey to Mordor. Fantasy is great escapism, but I was suddenly realizing the parallel between Middle-earth and earth, the dark shadow taking over the world I was reading about and the world just outside the window next to me.
I set the book down, now hungry for something real, for something normal because I now knew that life was going to be anything but normal for the next few weeks, maybe months. I needed a story about real people doing real things, living in a modern, normal world. I went to the bookstore and found Normal People. Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel that I had heard about but hadn’t given much thought to reading anytime soon. I couldn’t set it down the whole flight home as it instantly became one of my favorite novels. All of a sudden, it was a Hulu series premiering at the end of April and my 2020 quarantine was set for escapism to normalcy, to a simple and relatable millennial love story. Sometimes beautiful stories come to you when you need them the most and in this time of perpetual solitude and introspection, Normal People came to me.
It seems the quest to connect comes easy to most people while there are those that always feel lost, distant from the world. Connell and Marianne fit in the latter and for any millennial (or person, this story just pertains mainly to the younger crowd), that watches this show and feels the insecurity, sadness, shame, grief, envy, empathy and love that these two feel, then they’ll understand the resentment of living in this day and age (I’m talking pre-corona, when we all weren’t suffering collectively). But it’s not just in their feelings that they have trouble connecting to those around them.
For Connell, though he is popular in school and well-liked by all of those around him, it is his passions and interests that alienate him as well as his desire to please people and have a good status. He likes to read and write while his friends prefer to talk about sex and make fun of people and while for the most part he is fine with that, he feels alone. He is good at acting understood by his friends when in truth he is always misunderstood. It helps that he’s athletic, a star player on the football team. The one silver lining is his mum, who is awesome and with whom he has a good relationship with. Marianne, on the other hand, is a loner because she could care less what other people think. She ascribes school to an authoritative government and knows there’s more important issues in the world than popularity and the trivial subjects of conversation found in the hallways. This comes from the hell she was born into: a verbally abusive brother and a passive mother. Her feeling of superiority leads her to being bullied, ostracized, and completely alone.
Paradoxically, Connell and Marianne are united by the division of class. Connell’s mother works for Marianne’s rich family. Though they’ve grown up together in a small town in Sligo, Ireland, their similar worldviews collide when Connell comes to pick up his mother from Marianne’s house. Now that they’re older, they find a connection with each other. Connell realizes that there is a good heart under Marianne’s condescendingly coy exterior while Marianne sees the goodness and humility under Connell’s shyness. Their casual acquaintance blossoms into a first kiss of connection neither has had before, a deep understanding neither has felt before, and due to their disparate reputations in school, a clandestine sex affair neither has the maturity to really grasp. This leads to betrayal and hurt before the school year ends.
Connell then chooses to go to Trinity in Dublin with Marianne and their tumultuous relationship is carried over to college. They’re both brilliant people, passing their school exams and referring to each other as the smartest person they know. But in college, it’s Connell who struggles to find friends while Marianne immediately finds her group and a snobby new boyfriend. Connell majors in English and while he is smart, he can’t articulate and analyze stories as well as his classmates, he isn’t as rich as them, and he’s more down to earth. Marianne obviously connects more with Connell, but her wealth and austerity attract a pretentious group of “friends.”
Through university, Connell and Marianne go back and forth. Mistakes and miscommunication tear them apart while their soulful connection always brings them back together. Whether they are having sex or having coffee, it’s impossible to avert your eyes from these two. It helps that directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald- each directing six episodes of the 12-episode show- shoot Connell and Marianne in wonderful and colorful shallow-focus, displaying their disconnect from the world. The sex scenes are so real and beautiful. The score and soundtrack is also great. Then there’s Connell and Marianne and the actors that portray them. Both are incredible and even better than what I pictured reading the novel. Paul Mescal deserves an Emmy for his tender, vulnerable Connell. It’s heart-wrenching yet perfect to watch a young man cry. Daisy Edgar-Jones carries Marianne’s coldness and contempt with ease, while subtly showing her shame and sense of unworthiness as it progressively gets worse.
Normal People is a raw and realistic show. It reminded me of Like Crazy (2011), but where that is just a raw depiction of a couple facing a long distance relationship, Normal People depicts more than just the love of the central couple. It covers the aforementioned issues of the day, the struggles and strife of the millenial. Though their road is bumpy, Connell and Marianne still help each other through so much. Connell helps her with her shit boyfriends, her shame and worth, her past and terrible family. He listens to her rants about Facebook and issues in the world. He’s still there when all of her other friends have left her. He understands her and loves her deeply. Marianne helps Connell through his girlfriends, depression, grief, and loneliness. She consistently forgives him and knows he is a good person. She supports his writing. She understands him and loves him deeply. That’s what is so refreshing about this show. There’s a million love stories depicted on screen, but so few are as raw and real; a deeply felt love story set amidst the difficulties of modernity.
There’s other pain than just the pain of love. But when that love is real and that bond is sealed, when the connection is unbreakable, then so much good can be done. Only that true love can heal when the world beats you down. That’s why Connell and Marianne are lucky enough to at least have each other. It’s hard to face the pain the world inflicts by yourself. It’s hard to feel detached from the world all the time, alienated and alone. It’s hard when it’s too painful to talk to the one person who knows you the most. Normal People will resonate with these people too, the ones who have to face it all alone. But there is hope in love. In finding someone who truly knows you. For Connell and Marianne, they know love and they know each other. So when Connell gets accepted into a creative writing MFA program in New York and has to consider leaving that love and understanding with Marianne for what is, presumably, due to his youth, the preferred thing, the thing you feel you have to do, the way you choose and the way you go. Thanks to Marianne, he has this option of leaving, having not been there if it weren’t for her. Marianne doesn’t want to go with him. She’s finally started living the life she’s wanted to live. A guiltless life of worth and contentment, thanks to Connell.
When Marianne tells Connell he should go in the last scene of the show, a brutally raw, gut-punch of a scene; it’s easy to believe Marianne when she says they’ll be okay. They only have each other and they know each other more than anybody else. If the events of the show prove anything, it is a bond that cannot be broken, much less bent. Their love is a rare kind of too strong. They’ll find each other again. They are inseparable. The world always brings them back together. It’s not like this with other people. They will never feel the same way for anyone else. There is really only one person that can truly know you. As Connell says he’ll go and Marianne says she’ll stay, it is that triumphant pain of love that reminds us that to live is to let go, but to be alive, that is to hold on.