Conversations With Friends: Our review of 'Normal People'
Editor’s Note: Normal People spoilers lie ahead. DO NOT CONTINUE unless you have watched / at LEAST read. And, if you have not watched then might we kindly enquire as to what on earth you have been doing instead???
So strange to be talking to you in long-form, since our normal form of communication consists of an erratic, unfiltered stream of consciousness that makes sense only if you read as one long flow from my brain to the Messenger app. However, review Normal People we must, and snippets of our conversations are not publishable - whilst we can read the underlying sentiment of each pig emoji we send to each other, I doubt others will follow the thread that easily. Besides, this is bringing me back to the joys of having a pen pal. I had MANY. I tried to collect them wherever I went - shoutout to Anna from Lech - all of whom were certainly forced by their parents to reply to my four page letters. What’s more, as I have been pushing the “From Paris to Berlin” series for AGES I am happy I have finally managed to wrangle this format in, and for such a worthy subject too.
Without further ado, some observations from moi:
Normal People is obviously brilliant. Do we even need to say that? Feel like it is akin to remarking that Fleabag is “not bad.” The main parts are played beautifully and I doubt it’s possible for fans of the book to feel disappointed. I’m even hearing sacrilegious whispers that the TV series is better … I’m not sure I quite agree with that but it certainly stands up as a powerful work, independent of the book. I would hazard that WFH efficiency levels have dropped significantly since it came out, as it is one of those rare pieces of work that you would be happy to watch again almost immediately. Ironically, given the lesson of making the most of your life and your time on the planet, we did this at school with the film About Time. As soon as it finished we skipped back to the start - I guess Tim put the idea into our heads?!
Did you also think that the BBC has become much more racy?? Seriously though, I applaud it. It’s not so often that you see such tender and realistic sex scenes. I wish it was around when we were younger as it may have shed some light on certain things - gratified they included the use of contraception, although I wish it weren’t such an on-screen rarity that it justifies singling out and congratulating.
Tutorials at Trinity College are in another league to ours at Edinburgh. For the first three years, I recall, no one talked until the end of the semester in order to get their participation mark a bit higher. There were, of course, the usual suspects who would wade in with some pseudo-intellectual comment in an attempt to flirt with the tutor - I am reminded of someone squealing “Zadie Smith is just SO COOL!” in our 21st Century Fiction class. This was the level of our literary analysis in FOURTH YEAR. The only similarity I can see is that no English student anywhere it seems ever reads the books. #legends
The soundtrack is stunning! Normally, TV shows seem to use We Found Love by Calvin Harris and Rihanna for all nightclub scenes which is very galling. I wrote the worst essay of my university career on the ubiquity of this song in modern culture. Clearly, my passionate hatred did not convert to percentage points. Happily reminded of the existence of the song Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap. On repeat until I ruin it and retire it for another five years (along with Push the Button by Sugababes and My Humps by Black Eyed Peas.)
I am very interested in Marianne’s mother and wanted to see more about why she behaves the way she does. Personally, I am almost as riled by complicity as I am by the person behaving awfully (yes you, Alan) so I needed some more guidance to be able to feel sympathy for her. Maybe they didn’t have time to go into it as much as in the book, but I think it needed a bit more explanation. Ignoring your daughter on the street just seems like pure evil otherwise! Lorraine, on the other hand, is an absolute dream, I’m obsessed with her. Every boy needs a mother like her - proving it’s not necessary to be on your child’s side when they are behaving like an arsehole!
When I consider which scenes struck me, I land straight away on the Christmas scene, where Marianne is overwhelmed by how lovely, ordinary and familial it is. It puts her own experience and want of love into sharp contrast with Connell’s “normal” highlighting how precious moments like that are, that so many of us take for granted. Particularly poignant to us now that we can’t see many of our loved ones! Although, I suspect at the end of lockdown people will not be flocking to see their relatives, but to North London, where rumour has it, Paul Mescal has been spotted on Hinge...
I also think that the way they handled Connell’s depression was really significant. Not that often do we see young men’s struggle with mental health issues and I think they portrayed it really touchingly. I love the friendship between Niall and Connell. (Is Niall actually the only “normal person” in this series? He is heaven.) I hope it encourages more young men and boys to talk to each other about how they’re feeling and not to feel embarrassed by emotions - we all have them. It’s so common to suffer but it need not be in silence!
Finally, a scene that I found so accurate and actually painful to watch was when Marianne and Connell are asked by their friend Peggy whether they are a couple. Marianne replies nonchalantly, “a couple?” as if it has never occurred to her to wonder about their relationship status. Maybe I’m wrong, but to me it seems as if what she really wants is for Connell to say “of course we’re a couple!...I thought we already were...I don’t want to get with other people…” etc etc... Perhaps I recognise my own behaviour in that moment - sometimes you just really want someone to read your mind, thinking that it’s obvious what you want them to say, when in reality, to them, it rarely is. Connell, I think, hears that and understands from it that Marianne wants something casual, then doesn’t have the courage to say how he really feels. To add to this, there is society’s idea where, typically, men want their liberty and women are the ones who want more or want to “settle down.” To a third party observer, it’s obvious that this is just a breakdown in communication (a very common theme in their relationship - imagine breaking up by accident!) and that’s why it is soooo hard to watch.
À bientôt biatch, must continue manically googling “Masters at Trinity” and stalking the Connell’s chain instagram @Connellschain 23.6k followers and counting!
The only pen pal I have ever had was a French exchange called Jean-Baptiste. We were 12, and our communication was limited (pendant mes vacances je suis allée à la plage, j'habite à Londres, j'aime aller au cinéma etc), but he once sent me a snail fossil in the post, which was suitably weird and nice, so I look on him fondly. Given your geographical location, you are also a French exchange of sorts—plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose !!!
Anyway, yeah Normal People was very good. I finished it in a day (about the same amount of time it took me to read the book, to which I was so addicted I rented out a business-call ‘pod’ at work and staged a fake phone-interview so I could read all afternoon). Marianne and Connell were just as I imagined, and I am more in love with them than I thought possible. Seriously looking into moving to Ireland and getting myself a silent boyfriend who wears a chain.
It was sadder than I remember though?! In the book I remember Connell being much more certain—and happy!—in his decision to go to New York (as a side note, I could not stop laughing that the pivotal New York conversation took place in a public study room, with some poor girl just trying to revise in the corner). My point is, when I finished reading NP, I felt very confident in knowing that Marianne and Connell would eventually reunite and go on to have lots of bookish babies together. Now, post TV series, I’m less sure. But maybe that is a general quarantine melancholy clouding my judgement.
Another odd thing I noticed about the TV Show is, that while I absolutely love them together, no part of me would want to spend time with Connell and Marianne in real life. They are completely wrapped up in their own world and would be objectively terrible company. I think seeing this play out on screen makes it clearer somehow. Eg. the scene where they both look moody at the pool party, or the scene where they wordlessly cycle to the Italian village in fits of giggles. That’s the trouble with soulmates, I suppose, they’re so divinely complete they don’t need anyone else’s company.
Connell, also, is one of those people that has always baffled me—in that he contributes next to nothing conversationally, and yet somehow people are very assured that he is good value. I am constantly striving to be a bit more discreet, so I am very jealous of him in this regard. Instead, I worry (/know) that I am Peggy. The loud, champagne-socialist, who wears kaftans and won’t stop talking about Berlin. Alas.
I could go on and on, but, in the interest of brevity—some observations about your observations:
YES, I do think that the BBC has become much racier. The only sex scene I know of that rivals Normal People (in terms of believability/sweetness) is The Spectacular Now, which, tbh, has been soiled for me ever since I read that awful Esquire interview with Miles Teller (I know we differ on this). So, agreed: hats off to the BBC. It should be used for educational purposes.
I found the tutorial scenes painful. Mostly because, for my entire university experience, I was the girl who (having not read the book) made very nondescript remarks in seminars, and I had never realised how incredibly obvious/wanky this looks until I watched it dramatised on iPlayer. I despair for my former self. Also, I think it’s very kind of you to suggest that “Zadie Smith is just so cool” was the most notably stupid thing said in our 21st Century Fiction class, bearing in mind that was the same seminar in which I mentioned Lucy Watson (of Made in Chelsea fame) as a valid literary reference. As I said, I despair.
Sad to say, I actually hated the soundtrack??! There was something very jarring about the way the songs faded in and out. And, as much as I used to love Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek, I am afraid it has been irrevocably ruined for me ever since Jason Derulo sampled it for his smash ‘09 hit Whatcha Say. P.S. Glad you mentioned that particular essay though. I actually got 85% in it :)
The Christmas scene was SO MOVING! I think the title Normal People is funny, because neither Marianne nor Connell are remotely “normal” (they’re both beautiful geniuses for a start), but that scene (for me at any rate) is the perfect representation of all of their “normal people” fantasies. It also offered some much-needed respite post the chaos that was the Italy episode. Italy was very stressful. I had to watch Jamie’s scenes with my hands over my eyes—he is so unbearable. I feel like we have met enough Jamies for several lifetimes.
I am not sure Marianne’s father’s abuse was discussed enough, because I think that explains a lot of her mother’s behaviour. That said, forgetting your child’s birthday is a sackable offence. Also, I completely agree with you re: Lorraine, she is the unsung hero of the story and a template for good parenting. I too will ghost my male children if they start behaving like dikheds.
Again, totally agree about the excellent way the show depicts mental health, and also masculinity. I thought the episode with Rob’s funeral was one of the series' strongest, and I’m pleased to see stories like this properly and accurately portrayed. Likewise, it was refreshing to see Connell openly discuss the loneliness he experiences at university. There’s a certain shame in admitting to being lonely, and I wish there wasn’t because it’s both a very shit and very normal thing to feel. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot more about since we went into lockdown, which has—at times—felt very lonely. That sounds more self-pitying than I probably intend it to, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Also, yes, Niall (alongside Lorraine) is my favourite character in the entire series and I would like either to marry him, or watch a spin-off show dedicated to his hapless adventures and travels.
I think I agree with your last point about Marianne and Connell’s miscommunication, but I also find this aspect of their relationship incredibly frustrating to the point of distraction. Like, I knooooow that is the whole point, but I also don’t understand how two people who are divinely matched and able to communicate with one another on such a spiritual level, cannot just read each other’s minds. It doesn’t add up. However, this might be due to the fact that I cannot conceive of a world where I exercise enough self-restraint and don’t say exactly what is on my mind, all of the time (I am a Cancer though..) Again, if I have learned anything from reading/watching/reviewing Normal People it is that I am gobby like Peggy and should just waltz back to Berlin where I belong.
Enough for now. I could on about this forever.
Tschüssi !!! (That’s a friendly “goodbye!!!!”)
- Idle Chit Chat