Normal People: Great book, slightly disappointing TV adaptation.
Now the terrestrial television version is finally over, I can deliver the review I’ve been sitting on after bingeing the series on I-Player, to avoid spoiling it for those people still ploughing on with week by week. I don’t know this as I write, but I imagine that the viewing figures showed a steady decline from the opening episodes, whose early brilliance, with the promise of much more, became a distant, hard -to- keep- hold -of memory by the end.
The Sally Rooney Conundrum
I came to the series with some history as far as Rooney is concerned. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends launched her onto the literary scene in a blaze of glory. The reviews were universally gushing. This, they shouted, was a major new talent, the voice of the millennials, someone who really understood how that generation felt and thought and acted. Someone fresh and exciting and new. And young. More than anything else, her greatest asset as far as the panoply of cultural commentators were concerned, was her youth.
As someone who has studied and taught literature for all of my adult life, and what’s more, someone with an abiding love and passion for books, I have always looked out for the new kids on the block. I’m also someone who has been partial to the more experimental novelists, both in terms of style and structure. The difficult read was always for me an incentive not a passion killer. And so, I snapped up Conversations with Friends, eager to join the ranks of the disciples. I began to turn the pages with the juiciest phrases from the reviews echoing in my mind: whip smart, forensic examination of twenty something relationships. Funny. Incisive.
After thirty pages, I was puzzled. After fifty I was annoyed. What a dreadful book. Trite, dull, shallow nonsense acted out amongst a menage a trois, with supporting cast, all drowning in narcissistic entitlement. A real case of the Emperor’s New Clothes or Old Wine in New Bottles. I developed a theory that this was yet another manifestation of the modern phenomenon of Literary agents and Publishers preferring young, attractive women to old grey-haired dudes because they were easier to market and promote. It was easier to envisage shipping shedloads of product if it had been produced by a photogenic babe with her finger on the Instagrammable pulse of the millenial generation. This theory gained traction in my very small brain when it was announced that Rooney’s second book, “Normal People” had been listed for the Booker prize. That greater traction converted to obvious conspiracy theory territory when my research showed that Normal People had not even been published when it was listed for this major Literary prize. That was the clincher. I fumed from my unsuccessful writer’s garret and railed against the cosy, cliquey, corrupt literary establishment stitch up, and vowed never to read it and to diss Rooney’s name whenever the opportunity arose.
And that, for me, would have been a perfect and entirely satisfactory end to my virtuous rage, but for one fatal mistake.
I read it.
I finally decided to give it another chance after reading, almost continuously so it seemed, endless glowing references to it, endorsements and general positivity, some from people whose judgement I generally have a lot of time for. I reluctantly concluded that I might have got it wrong and been a bit hasty. I’m sure you’ll find that easy enough to believe.
I started again, sure that my original withering critical assessment would be vindicated. It starts quite slowly and obliquely (another one my moans about modern fashions in literature), so that you have to work hard to piece together relationships and point of view and setting and situation. Or everything, in short. But then, very quickly, after only a couple of pages, the fog lifted to reveal a gorgeous landscape. I was enthralled. The book is a beautiful, beautiful thing of subtlety, wonder , emotion and intellect. The depiction of contemporary Secondary school life, with its airy cruelty, social media fuelled bullying and shifting allegiances between well defined, well known cliques that are impossible to break down, infiltrate or change was masterful. The taboo relationship between the classes and cliques, and its accompanying, soaring exhilaration and embarrassment was beautifully, sensitively explored. I loved the way that the central relationship was so precious, so wondrous to Marianne and Connell that they became paralysed by fear that one wrong word or move would finish it. On some deep level, neither of them really believed they deserved the other and this always translated into, for the observer, an infuriating inability to communicate with each other about their own needs. The subtleties of class and alienation, so often in modern times ignored or badly rendered, were navigated with a rare combination of authority and humanity, as were the perils of the working-class boy arriving at and surviving an elite University.
It’s a glorious novel about the earth-shattering, life affirming, all- enveloping effect of finding someone who you connect with, at that most tender and exciting time of one’s life, when all things are possible and one fears that none of them will come to pass.
I was so pleased that I decided to read it, after dismissing Rooney as an establishment darling, a judgement I look back on with some embarrassment. It seems pretty obvious to me now, that my conspiracy theories about literary agents were fuelled by my own frustrations as a budding writer, of not being able to attract a spark of interest in getting my books called.
So, having revised my opinion, I was really looking forward to the TV adaptation. The first episode was fabulous, and promised a binge worthy series. The two actors embodied the characters as I had envisaged them and the awkward choreography of school and relationship was beautifully portrayed. But then, as it progressed, it lost its way. The TV version simply did not deliver the characters’ interior life in the same depth as the book, so the viewer was left baffled by a series of decisions or non-decisions they made. Marianne’s descent into the two appalling abusive boyfriends after Connell, in Italy and Sweden, was utterly unconvincing to me, when in the book, it made perfect sense. The same applied, for me at any rate, about their ridiculous lack of communication about flats and the like, and Marian’s family background.
And then we come to the matter of televised sex. At the risk of sounding like my mother back in 1974, or the legendary Brenda from Bristol on the prospect of a General Election (“What, another one?”) did we really need it? After the second half hour episode, every scene where they got their kit off was just filling airtime. By then, we had all got the point that “it isn’t like this with anyone else”. And the much trumpeted (well, by The Daily Mail, anyway) forty minutes in total of sex scenes completely misrepresented the balance of the original book.
Notwithstanding all of this, the two main actors were spectacularly good. I have a feeling that we will be seeing an awful lot more of them in the future. Paul Mescal’s performance as Connell, sensitive, intelligent literate working class boy who is also good at sport and socially successful, was brilliant. His portrayal of the difficulties this hugely talented character had in finding his niche amongst the posh kids, his breakdown after the suicide of his friend from Sligo , culminating in a heart rending scene of uncontrolled male sobbing was so convincing, so perfect it made me once again worry about my own son and the position of young male twentysomethings in society today. It’s much harder growing up these days than it was in my day, back in the Seventies. Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne was also fabulous, particularly in the earlier episodes at school and at home, as someone who was alone in her abusive family and with no friends until Connell comes along. I’d also like to give a special mensh to Desmond Eastwood who played Niall, Connell’s flat mate and friend at Trinity. A minor character, he completely slipped my notice when reading the book, but he struck me as being just perfect in the adaptation. Just as in real life, the normal, ordinary, kind, helpful, supportive people tend to go under the radar, and Niall seemed like an absolute sweetie, the kind of friend everyone needs, who can crack a joke or smooth things over, when all around him over-sensitive people are falling apart, sometimes self-indulgently, sometimes as vulnerable human beings.
So, what a wasted opportunity, after a wonderful start. It could have been so much better. It’s still head and shoulders above most things on TV at the moment, but the book drove me to want more from it. If you didn’t like the TV version, and as you can see, I can absolutely relate to that, please don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of the book. It is a major piece of work.