When Sally Rooney’s instant best-seller Normal People came out in 2018, I was one of the 500,000 Britons to buy and read it. As a historian of modern relationships, I try to keep tabs on how sexual culture changes, and a novel that probed in detail the sexuality of a couple of contemporary youngsters as they weave in and out of romance seemed like essential and enjoyable homework.
Yet how dull “the literary phenomenon of the decade” turned out to be — and what was stranger, how knowingly, coyly dull. I had assumed the almost insolently underwhelming name on the tin — Normal People — was an ironic joke, and that the contents would be abnormally original, with unusually vivacious, insightful writing.
I was wrong. Rooney isn’t into vivacity, as her dour expression and flat, understated style of writing might suggest. What she is into is sex, and most particularly the tears and apologies that seem to surround it for the young erotic adventurers of today. The result is a prose I found hypnotically low-pulse.
But with over a million copies sold worldwide, first prize in the Costa and Waterstones Book of the Year and plenty more accolades, Normal People clearly answered to a global appetite. The TV adaptation was inevitable, and lo, it was released last week to instant roaring success.
Once again, a dutiful investigator, I found myself glued to the BBC’s version of Rooney’s coolly flat world while also bored. What is it about this story that has captured us so?
Most obviously, it is the sex, which manages to be both ‘hot’ and firmly didactic — just how we moderns like it. Most episodes — and there are 12 — contain what can only be described as great coitus between the lead characters, with emotional intensity driving on the obvious physical urgency and pleasure. At first, in school, the popular Connell (Paul Mescal) is too embarrassed to be associated with the weird and friendless Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), and so their sexual relationship is secret. Though Rooney and now the directors work hard, and successfully, to render this relationship tense and meaningful, they obviously have a keen eye for the plainly arousing.
There is something unsettling, almost dishonest in this. Packaged as the sometimes difficult, vulnerable-making and above all authentic sexual experience of ‘normal people’ (i.e. ‘damaged’ people, of which more later) these are not the kind of sexual experiences I remember from school and university — and there were plenty of ‘normal’ (i.e. ‘damaged’) people in both places. In the first place, their looks and the calibre of their sensual experience for their age are exceptional.
Readers of the book had to infer from Connell’s thoughts that Marianne is in the essentially sexy category of unpopular girl, despite being bullied about her looks at school. By contrast, the makers of the TV programme settle the question of their universal sexual appeal immediately: Edgar-Jones is a knock-out — the sinewy, delicate, quiet and mysterious ying to the big handsome, blue-eyed athleticism of Mescal’s Connell. Both are equally libidinous, so that the production often feels more like high-end pornography than drama, even if the sex escapes gratuitousness by marking the waning and waxing of their relationship. Either way, their goings-on are hardly ‘normal’; nor are they ‘damaged’. They’re enviably perfect.
I was discomfited to note the quiet but firm moral running through the production: great, truly hot sex is the reward for beautiful, and above all thin girls with stylish hair — Marianne’s fringe and charcoaled eyes, along with her delicately picked-out clavicles and hip-bones, quite often steal the limelight. The same moral is maintained in the sex scene between Connell and his college girlfriend Helen: here is another toned, fatless woman with long brown locks that sexily tousle with sweat as she enjoys Connell. Meanwhile Marianne’s less beautiful friend Peggy (India Mullen) is sexually invisible, and her best friend — a very overweight, sensible girl called Joanna (Eliot Salt) — is rendered entirely mumsy, a foil. Nothing happens to her.
If the sex in Normal People silently reaffirms the enduring gold standard of female slenderness and the kind of sultry mysteriousness evident in Marianne’s long, dark silences, then it is very explicitly didactic in other ways. All sexual exchanges are peppered with nervy utterances of ‘is that OK?’, ‘if that’s OK’, ‘if you want me to’ and so on. The sex between Marianne and Connell is as much about trumpeting the virtues of constant and enthusiastic consent-seeking — indeed of the softly softly feminist man’s approach to shagging — as it is about raw desire. “If you want to stop or anything we can obviously stop, if it hurts or anything we can stop, it won’t be awkward, just say,” says Connell in the first sex scene, when Marianne loses her virginity. This was an object lesson in smart sex for the woke age — take no steps without express permission, especially where women are concerned.
Marianne and Connell’s virtuous sex scenes gleam with a knowing, seductive touch because they were expertly choreographed, emotionally and physically, by an intimacy coordinator. Since MeToo, as sensitivities around consent have been heightened, intimacy coordinators have become mandatory on most major productions to ensure no liberties are taken filming sex scenes and that the actors feel ‘comfortable’.
For Normal People, the BBC hired the sought-after Ita O’Brien, a former dancer and actor who oversaw the action in fellow teen bonk fest Sex Education. Just as the characters constantly seek mutual assurance of emotional comfort, the intimacy coordinator ensures the actors feel just as comfortable.
The language of intimacy coordination, with its emphasis on constant emotional temperature checks, perfectly matches the ideology of the book and — at last — helps shed light on what is meant by ‘normal’. In a world obsessed with policing violated boundaries and outing emotional discomfort, ‘normal’ means either ‘weird’ or ‘damaged’ — which, therapeutic wisdom has it, are traits we should celebrate (unless they involve holding offensive political opinions). “How I act with [Marianne] is my normal personality,” Connell tells a jealous Helen in response to her question of why he is so ‘weird’ around Marianne. “Maybe I’m just a weird person,” he says, concluding a scene crafted to signify who he really belongs with (Marianne).
Normal People has been hailed for its relatability, with the inference that we’re all weird, we’re all damaged, and we are all saved only by those who truly and authentically love us. Indeed love and damage go hand-in-hand, and emotional vulnerability has become the ultimate aphrodisiac. The scene in which Connell and Marianne’s love enters a new more serious phase revolves around her tearful musing: “I don’t know why I can’t make people love me.” Marianne hints for the first time at the abuse visited on her by her odious brother, confessing to a shocked Connell that she hadn’t told him yet because “I was afraid you’d think I was damaged”. Magic words. Connell’s love surges, as he tells her none of it is her fault and that she is loved. A rush of lust follows.
Later, following the suicide of a friend back in Sligo, and with frequent panic attacks, Connell himself seeks out counselling, and the therapeutic process lends the final episodes their dramatic thrust, winning plaudits from men’s mental health activists. Tick.
Normal People chimes with the growing consensus — even in Britain — that therapy wins all. Indeed, from Wanderlust to Sex Education, no contemporary British drama is complete now without an extended therapy scene. The therapeutic journey is also the dramatic heart of Dolly Alderton’s best-selling Everything I Know About Love, now being made into a TV series too (Alderton was runner-up to Rooney at the 2018 Waterstones Book of the Year Awards).
Neither the fascination with rendering the ‘true’ self fully transparent nor the belief that only through being vulnerable shall we be free are new. Freud unleashed on a mass scale the conviction that our ‘true’ drives lurk below external presentation, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that therapy culture and practices really began to suffuse approaches to everything from relationships to feminism to management. As observers noted at the time, this could yield a strangely closed-feeling, narcissistic system of interaction, in which self-discovery was the end point for all endeavours. By the mid-1980s, a series of new women’s magazines were targeting a readership that was, in magazine historian Anna Gough Yates’s words ‘vulnerable’, ‘self-critical’ and ‘insecure inside’. A fit description of the characters in Normal People.
Normal People is the perfect product for a generation taught to seek out and proudly lay claim to sexual and emotional vulnerability. In the past, sex scenes packed full of the considerate, careful hesitation we see here might have garnered laughter and shrieks of ‘get on with it!’. But today, virtue and the erotic go hand in hand. The message of MeToo seems to have won out: respecting boundaries is as hot as the sex itself.