By Monica Busch
This piece was written in May and appeared in a spring edition of Talk Vomit’s newsletter, which is available to Patreon subscribers. We’re sharing it here in advance of our November book club meeting, during which we will discuss Normal People with club members. The session is at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 29. If you’d like to join, please subscribe to our Patreon at the High-Five level. If you’d like to join but cannot afford to, please email Monica directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I want to talk about Normal People, the Hulu adaptation, for a bit here, but I don’t know where to begin. Do I start with a nod to the fact that it’s very in to have an opinion about Normal People? Do I start by mentioning that the show’s release has renewed discussions about whether or not Sally Rooney deserves the praise she’s received since the book was first released in 2018, discussions that are inextricable from assumptions about and biases against Rooney’s age and woman-ness? Do I take issue with the fact that so much of the criticism Rooney receives is rooted in lit-world jealousy of people who make commercially and critically well-received art before they are 30? (Remember when Girls was at its peak?)
I thought about starting this newsletter in each of these ways, but it all felt boring because it’s all been done before and I don’t like chiming in for the sake of chiming in, because that’s boring, too. (A friend of mine recently said of a mutual acquaintance with perennially vocal bad takes: “You don’t HAVE to post!!!!!”)
To punctuate this rambling beginning, I present two images:
The reason I want to consider Normal People for a moment has nothing to do with any of that and all to do with how the adaptation made me feel, which was a lot like how the book made me feel when I first read it. After following along with several hundred pages of “will they/won’t they,” I got to the ending and felt as though Rooney had spent all of those pages and all of those misadventures articulating a feeling for which there is no word, or at least not one I can think of, to describe the distinct blend of torment and excitement that comes from being pretty sure that you’re into someone and that they’re into you but being entirely unable to convince yourself to risk it all by verbalizing anything prematurely, combined with a series of extenuating social circumstances that give the entire situation more weight than it probably objectively deserves, all the while being unable to deny that the decision you make (whether or not to SAY anything explicitly) will, indeed, have consequences. And what if things go south and you’re reminded that there wasn’t even technically anything there to be upset about in the first place? Just me?
(I do want to note that all relationships have social consequences! Good or bad! What you do impacts your community; we love a novel of manners because it simply heightens the stakes.)
Ladies and gentlemen, this is why I loved Dawson’s Creek and this is why I loved Normal People. (And this is also why we are all collectively fixated on whether Ross and Rachel were on a break, fwiw.)
All of this noodling on quiet, heavy attractions has me thinking about novels of manners (what on earth is the plural form of this term??) and why they stand the test of time even when they are so frequently derided as chick lit or whatever, i.e. stories focused on the relatively “unimportant” drama between people, especially lovers. I think, in part, their longevity has a lot to do with the fact that while we humans like to compartmentalize and label things, that’s not how we experience the world on a day-to-day basis. We like clear definitions, steps, procedures, names, directions, “what are we.” But so much of life, so many of the things we fixate on, aren’t clear cut.
In my experience, it’s the in-between-ness of things that sticks with me the most, tends to impact me the most, emotionally. The tacky connective tissue between me and other people, between life phases and career choices and, frankly, decisions in general.
This is Normal People’s entire schtick., and I’ve been wondering if the criticism that “nothing happens” in the story is really just a form of expressing discomfort with the idea that most of our lives are, in fact, very small and, outside of trauma, entirely defined by the mundane.
At the risk of a tangent,
I was recently mulling a specific phenomenon that I wonder if other people, especially women, can relate to. I was dishing some drama to a male friend who I know loves to gossip, about someone he knows who was involved in a mini-scandal at my alma mater. In broad strokes, I painted what I thought was a pretty concise summary of what had happened. His response was something to the effect of: “Wow you guys are really involved in this.” I laughed it off, quipping something about small colleges, but I was miffed. Not enough to be Really Offended or whatever that means, but enough to question whether it’s stupid to be interested in small human conflicts, and whether I should have kept the information to myself, and whether the fact that I didn’t indicated I was, I don’t know, kind of dumb?
And I’m wondering if others, especially women, have noticed this to be a pretty uniform response from, particularly, cis straight men after you tell them something “silly” or “petty” or about “drama?” Or is it just me? Because while I don’t mean to put this one guy friend on blast, and I’m sure he didn’t mean to make me feel belittled, the belittling is so common that it’s honestly routine at this point.
Anyway, it reminded me of Normal People and some of the pushback it receives/is receiving for its plot being so outwardly minute, for relying so heavily on things that are not said and concerning itself with relationships that only partially exist, because those parts of the story get at the tension I’m trying desperately to describe right now: that sometimes an entire interpersonal arc takes place in glances, missed beats, brief exchanges, third-party observations.
I think the reason I am feeling defensive here is that when I read Normal People and then when I saw the show, the main feeling it elicited from me was validation.
Involved vs. Dating
When I was really young, like early high school and late middle school, my friends and I had a name for relationships that were never codified: involvements. When I moved to the South, my peers called this “talking.”
During those younger years, I had one or two boyfriends, but neither of those relationships lasted long or were very serious, and neither really left a mark. We never said “I love you” and I remember being sad for exactly one day when each one ended.
The “involvements” I had, however, spanned many months, often years, and they were never clearly defined, never labeled. These are the formative nubile relationships that continued to haunt me for years going forward because they were emotionally consuming, always characterized by the two of us taking ourselves and our situations far too seriously. The energy between me and these two or three boys felt electric, magnetic; we talked for hours into the nights and shared interests in art and manifested an intimacy that far exceeded the kind I experienced with any actual “boyfriend.” But on the outside, it was nothing. We did not hold hands at school and we didn’t tell our families that we were more than friends, although in hindsight they probably knew.
I don’t know why I never pushed to make these boys my boyfriends and I don’t know why they never pushed to make me their girlfriends, but now, many years removed, I can conjecture: having a significant other while in high school or even college attracts so much attention and entirely upends the social balance, not to mention it almost always requires uncomfortable conversation and even more uncomfortable boundary settings. In that way, I enjoyed all the good parts of being in a relationship with someone I liked, all the teenaged passion included, without having to deal with the things that make relationships things that require work — the outside world. Not to mention that all of the heightened drama does a lot for making a person feel… well, special.
The truth is, I think a lot of young people, especially bookish or quiet people, have these kinds of half-relationships. I can think of a whole genre of couples across literature and television that represent this kind of will they/won’t they tension. There’s Joey and Dawson, yes, but also Lorelei and Luke, Annie and Jeff, Joey and Phoebe, etc. The attraction between these characters is so frequently implied but the intricacies that go into sustaining such a tension are rarely, if ever, explored. These are characters who are victims of circumstance, although plot devices suggest they are “meant” to be together, eventually, somehow.
Nate got very “upset” while half-watching Normal People over my shoulder because he recognized some of these details in our own relationship, from before we started dating, when there was tension but no action, when our compatibility was apparent but our exact connection a question mark. He was very upset when Connell and Marianne didn’t end up together in the end, when everything was left ambiguously.
“Not everyone ends up together like we did,” I said.
He said back: “But they should.”
I think Sally Rooney’s decision to focus on the ambiguities, the “why don’t you just SAY somethings” of romantic relationships was moving. It evokes such a sense of nostalgia that it’s almost hard to stand, although not because it’s trite or cliche, but because it’s difficult to dwell in tenderness that doesn’t develop.
And that is what I thought of Normal People.