One of the biggest literary success stories of the past couple of years has been Irish novelist Sally Rooney. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), became a sensation, quickly earning best-seller status and high praise from critics. Everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Shiv Roy was seen reading it.
By the time her second novel, Normal People, was published in 2018, Rooney had become a recognisable brand. A first-rate chronicler of modern relationships and millennial angst. A “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.” Oh, did I forget to mention that she’s not even 30?
I read Normal People with a seething awareness of the author’s youth – she’s achieved the kind of early career success that every young writer dreams of. And with every turning page, my jealousy grew. It wasn’t just her age, but her sparse, elegant style. It is a truly tender and haunting novel.
Needless to say, expectations were sky-high for the television adaptation of Normal People that premiered last week. A co-production between the BBC and Hulu, the series is a faithful translation of the story of Connell and Marianne, set primarily during their years at Trinity College in Dublin.
Stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones bring empathy and life to the central characters, who so desperately want to be together but cannot find a way to make it work.
Forces of class remain an obstacle to Connell and Marianne’s relationship (she’s rich, he’s not), but wisely stays mostly in the background. Ever present, but largely unspoken, like in the best parts of the novel.
Rooney’s clarity of vision when it comes to character and dialogue carries over well to the series, which was penned by Alice Birch. Rooney herself co-wrote the first six episodes.
A trend in screen adaptations of literary works is to tell the story as a miniseries instead of one two-hour movie. I’m not sure I’m a fan of this approach, usually, as it more often than not encourages its creators to cram in every detail and side plot from the novel into the show. The result tends to end up indulging itself a bit too much, like with the recent version of Little Fires Everywhere.
But Normal People does not have a wide cast of characters or many side plots. Its focus is almost entirely on the relationship between Connell and Marianne. So, did it really need to be a 12-part series? No, but when the story is rendered so tenderly, when the emotions are so deeply felt, when the characters are so acutely realised, it doesn’t matter.
For anyone who was moved by Rooney’s aching prose, Normal People is a must watch.
Image from BBC.