Hulu’s “Normal People” Evokes How Intense First Love Can Be
The new adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel offers the best kind of romantic nostalgia.
Normal People is best consumed alone. In its depiction of first love, this series evokes something that — at least for me, and maybe for you — feels so personal and private that even having someone else in the room seems too intimate. When I texted a friend to tell her that the show was premiering on Hulu this week, she said she’d spent the last weeks emotionally preparing herself. The novel the series is based on, by Sally Rooney, does things to people. It transports us back to our most tender and desirous selves. The show does too.
If you’ve read the book, you might already have some sense of its emotional wallop. It’s the story of two teens — Marianne (brilliant, solitary, spiky, delicately beautiful) and Connell (equally brilliant, classically handsome, taciturn, popular) in Sligo, Ireland. They come from very different social circles and classes — Connell’s mom works for Marianne’s family as a housekeeper — but fall for each other’s minds, have hot, secretive sex, and spend the next years of their lives circling in and out of one another’s orbit. It is a story about how first loves become indelible to our sense of self, with the capacity to injure and animate us for years to come. It’s not sweet, or even pleasurable per se; it’s messy and frustrating and structured by class and status anxiety.
In the book version of Normal People, significant sections of Marianne and Connell’s relationship takes place via text messages — one of several attributes that have earned Rooney the designation of the quintessential (white) millennial novelist. But the show manages to feel at once of the moment and timeless. Unlike Sex Education, set in a sunny, vaguely ’80s, vaguely utopian version of Wales, Normal People is ostensibly rooted in the nearish present: When Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) end up at Trinity College in Dublin, for instance, there’s a conversation about the free speech debates on college campuses.
But the fixtures of the modern dating world — text messages, dating apps, social media of any kind — are almost entirely eclipsed in the show by real-life interactions: small moments of emotional violence and repair, interspersed with distance and longing. Characters miscommunicate not because text messaging is an imperfect medium, but because they actually stop talking to each other (after Connell, the dolt, asks someone else to prom). The narrative hinges occur when someone drives someone else home or shows up at a random party in college.
Which isn’t to suggest that the adaptation is particularly propulsive, or even plotty, at least not in the way we often think of those characteristics. Not much happens, other than people going about their days and spending a lot of time reading and staring out the window. The interactions between the two leads are hushed; no one makes any grand declarations. But they crackle with sexual and emotional chemistry. Same with all of the time we spend alone with Connell or Marianne: We’re meant to understand that, regardless of actual companions in the world, their exterior lives have never matched the depth of their interior ones. At least until they met each other.
Why do we compulsively return to these stories of first love? It’s not just romance; it’s a particular type of romance, the sort that evokes what Neko Case, in her song of the same name, refers to as “that teenage feeling.” If you’ve felt it, then you know it: a sensation so overwhelming and consuming that it separates you from everyone and everything else. It’s lying on your bed and just thinking of someone for hours. It’s waiting for days for a letter or an email to arrive. It’s a first touch so anticipated that you shiver. It feels boundless and universal and yet incredibly unique: No one’s quilt of longing looks quite like yours.
Everyone has their own pantheon of teenage feeling texts. Mine includes The OC, the first Twilight (movie and book, no shame), The English Patient, Romeo + Juliet, My So-Called Life, and the novel The Great Fire. Some of these imprinted on me when I was an actual teen swallowed by teenage feelings; others, like Twilight, became beacons of escapism later in life. And all are stories of love inflected with loss.
Music is a teenage feeling maker, too — any of the songs that I had on repeat during those times when I just lay around and drove around and sat around and yearned. And while I pored over the lyrics like everyone else my age, making collages of the CD liner notes and strategically deploying them on AIM, they were always secondary to the sound, the feel of the music itself, deployed to express the inexpressible.
Indeed, the moments that overwhelmed me most in Normal People coincided with the strategic incorporation of songs from classic teenage feeling texts spanning the last 20 years: “Angeles” by Elliott Smith, “Into Dust” by Mazzy Star, “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap, deployed to most memorable effect in The OC. In practice, these songs take moments that already feel overwhelming (A kiss! A reunion!) and, at least for me, transform them into something approaching the sublime. Which explains why I found myself weeping so many times over the course of the series: Some of the narrative is sad, but I think what was really happening was more like emotional surrender.
When I was a teen and young adult, I was simultaneously tortured by and addicted to those feelings. I craved them — and, like the characters in Normal People, both of whom have internalized their unworthiness in some way, I likely subconsciously sabotaged relationships in part to continue feeling them. I’ve also largely grown out of them, for lack of a better description, moving from the thrill and sink of dating to the steadiness and deep and textured trust of a long-term relationship. It’s not better or worse; it’s just different.
But I’ve also accumulated adult responsibilities that don’t leave time to focus so fully on romance, at least not the way I did when I was a teen. I could spend hours engrossed in pining because I wasn’t paying rent and school was straightforward. Even after I graduated from college, my life was still incredibly simple: I hung out with my friends, I went to my job and then came home, and I had so much time to spend wishing the guy I liked liked me more.
Nostalgia is the yearning for a place to which we can never truly return — in part because that place never quite existed as we remember, but also because we’ve accelerated past the point in our lives when we were able to experience it in that way.
Until recently, I was too busy to spend much time feeling teenage feelings — too busy even to stop and feel nostalgia for the time in my life when I could. I’d scroll through old Instagrams on my phone, but that’s like the Kidz Bop version of nostalgia, bland and flattened, protected against all emotional calamity. Real nostalgia has bite. It’s capable of wreckage.
Our teenage feelings never actually leave us. They transform and sour, recede and resurface.
For many, the last few months since the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed our lives — spent in isolation, under stress, in fear — have stripped us of both our excesses and our excuses. People are reconciling with exes, finally cutting off toxic relationships, rekindling dying friendships. My life, working from home, is empty but full. In many ways, I’ve felt transported to a version of myself I haven’t known for decades: There’s much less demanded of me, and so much more to give to myself. In this, I am incredibly privileged, much like I was at age 19.
When Fiona Apple’s new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, was released earlier this month, I didn’t just play it on repeat for days; I lived inside it. That was the way I used to engage with music, with books, with movies. I hadn’t done it in years. It felt like discovering a puzzle piece missing for so long I’d forgotten the puzzle was unfinished. Normal People does something similar — and, much like Apple’s album, understands that our teenage feelings never actually leave us. They transform and sour, recede and resurface. But those feelings are our companions, the foundations of our adult emotional lives, no matter how much we busy ourselves to erase or ignore them.
In the second episode of Normal People, Connell has asked Marianne to come over to his house on a Saturday afternoon — his mom will be gone, and they’ll have a chance to be alone. They’ve barely kissed, but the moment is freighted with possibility. Marianne puts on makeup in the late afternoon light, dresses up just slightly — what a feeling, getting ready to go over to a guy’s house for the first time! — and they awkwardly sit around his room.
“You always know what you think, I like that,” Connell tells her. He’s jealous of it, that certainty. “Well, you always know what you feel, don’t you?” she responds. “No, I struggle with that,” he says. “I might look back on something, and I can think of how I felt at the time — but when I’m in it, I never have any idea.”
I don’t know what I feel right now. But I do know, and find deep, unexpected comfort in, what I felt then. ●