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I binged the entirety of ‘Normal People’ in two days and it ruined my life (in a good way)

WORDS BY CAIT EMMA BURKE

Much like the book, the BBC television adaptation will break your heart again and again. It’s relentless, and I can’t get enough of it.

When Irish author Sally Rooney released her second novel Normal People, like almost every other millennial woman, I devoured it in a scarily short amount of time. The story of Marianne and Connell, two high schoolers from a small Irish town who begin an intense and tangled relationship with each other, was brutal and beautiful in the unassuming way it captured the complexities of navigating first love and early adulthood.

I first read Normal People a little under two years ago following a painful breakup of sorts, and it affected me in a visceral way. Rooney has a gift for capturing the minutiae of intimacy and romance – those moments that most of us struggle to put into words, or even fully comprehend as they’re occurring. A loaded glance, the delivery of a certain sentence, and the way the air can suddenly feel thick and electric when someone enters the room.

Given my aforementioned heartbreak, reading this book was like throwing myself into a blazing fire; blisteringly painful and utterly stupid. I wept so much that my tear ducts practically closed up in protest, so, naturally, when I heard the BBC was adapting the book into a 12-part series, I couldn’t wait to watch it. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

I watched the series the literal second it became available on Stan – something I’ve never done before – binging six episodes in one night and the final six the following night. Put simply, it ruined my life.

Releasing Normal People at a time when the majority of the world is confined to the four walls of their homes, with far too much time on their hands to mull over failed relationships and bubbling feelings of sexual frustration, was both a cruel and genius move by the people at the helm of this series.

Even the most emotionally stable of us have been tested over the last few months, but for me, Normal People was my breaking point. So, for the uninitiated, here are five reasons why it will ruin your life in the best way possible.

1. The particularly well-chosen soundtrack

Soundtracks can make or break a series, this we know. But Normal People really wanted us to hurt. I knew this much the second Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide and Seek’ kicked in to accompany a montage of Connell and Marianne falling in love.

For most millennials, this song is as loaded as they come. It was the song playing when Marissa Cooper shot the villainous Trey Atwood in The O.C’s season two finale, after all. An exceptionally melodramatic choice of song to accompany a shooting scene, no doubt, but goddamn did it work.

Post-O.C, the song practically became shorthand for any tumultuous, emotionally fraught moment in your life. I’m sure most teen girls of my generation shed a tear or two while listening to the illegally downloaded Mp3 of the song on their iPod Nanos more times than they care to admit.

Other soundtrack highlights included the use of Elliot Smith’s ‘Angeles’, another absolute tearjerker (for me, Elliot Smith’s music always has an added layer of sadness knowing the tragic way his life ended) and the expert use of diegetic music throughout the series. Case in point; when Connell and Marianne have finally got their shit together and are a proper couple for the first time, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Too Much’, is playing softly in the background.

Carly is the queen of lovestruck pop anthems, and considering the song is literally about feeling “too much”, it was the ideal accompaniment to this scene. Carly is also an artist I can picture Marianne and her friends listening to at a house party in an ironic manner – but genuinely loving it, because most people secretly like Carly Rae Jepsen – so it couldn’t have been more fitting.

2. Its depiction of real, loving and – most importantly – consensual sex

Much like the book, there’s a lot of sex in the television adaptation of Normal People, not that I (or anyone on the Internet) is complaining. The Cut even went so far as to suggest watching the show with a vibrator on hand.

This is truly incredible on-screen sex, sex that belongs in the Louvre. It’s filmed in a way that makes you feel like you’re right there experiencing it – tight close-up shots linger on Connell and Marianne’s damp, contorted faces and in one episode a sex scene lasts for 12 (12!) whole minutes, which basically constitutes half of the 30-minute episode. Incredible stuff.

But during these very horny lockdown times, watching Normal People’s depiction of sex is both excruciating and exciting. Excruciating for the obvious reasons (if, like me, you’re single and in isolation, you’ll know what I’m talking about) and exciting because it’s a reminder of how great loving, consensual sex can be, something that’s rarely depicted on screen.

Consent is front and centre in Normal People. It’s there when Connell checks if Marianne is sure before they have sex for the first time, and when he tells her that it’s okay for them to stop at any time. These are kind of basic things, but it shows how fraught our culture’s relationship with consent is that this is considered noteworthy, and drives home how important it is for young people to see consent played out on screen like this.

The best part about the sex scenes is that they aren’t perfect. The transition into sex isn’t seamless, and Connell and Marianne’s facial expressions seem authentic and relatable, something that many sex scenes get wrong (no one that’s actually enjoying sex looks like they know they’re being watched). It’s messy and fumbly, and they even show Connell getting up to retrieve a condom while Marianne waits on the bed, looking exposed and a little awkward.

It’s painfully real, and if you weren’t frustrated pre-Normal People, all I can say is gird your loins. As one Twitter user put it, “Releasing something as intensely horny as Normal People into a pandemic should be classed as criminal negligence by the BBC.” I concur. 

3. The expert casting

For as long as I can remember, I’ve mentally cast real-life actors to play the fictional characters in whatever book I’m reading at the time, like some type of deranged pro-bono casting agent. Or maybe you can just put it down to a lack of imagination.

Either way, I’ve always been very fascinated by actors – I’m that friend that will know the name of some obscure actor from a TV show you watched the other night, no need for Wikipedia – so when a book is adapted for the screen, seeing the casting decisions is always an exciting, but often disappointing experience for me.

Not so for Normal People. A lot was riding on the producers of the show getting the casting just right, and boy did they nail it. Both characters are obviously very good looking, but they’re good looking in a non-Hollywood way, in a way that feels believable. You’ve probably known people who looked and acted like them, maybe you’ve dated people they remind you of, and that’s why the series works so well. Just like the book, the understated normalcy of it is so, well, hot.

4. Connell is the nuanced male character we need in television right now; empathetic, caring and emotional, but flawed and complex. Also, he’s diabolically sexy. 

What can I say about Connell that every other thirsty person who’s watched Normal People hasn’t already said? He is devastatingly handsome, yes, but he also seems like that unassuming guy at high school who you didn’t really notice until he returned from the summer break in your final year having acquired a silver chain and grown four inches.

Which brings me to the best supporting actor in Normal People; Connell’s silver chain. The Internet is in love with Connell’s chain, so much so that an Instagram account aptly titled Connell’s Chain, solely dedicated to photos of him wearing said chain, has amassed over 16,000 followers in two days. (It’s probably a good time to be a jeweller right now, as I expect post-lockdown every second straight man will have mysteriously obtained a chain necklace.)

The chain speaks to why we are all so enamoured with Connell; it’s an unexpected but considered detail, both feminine and masculine, and it reminds us how potent that mixture is. Connell, especially in high school, hangs around with hyper-masculine, sexist boys, but he disagrees with their treatment of women and occasionally is brave enough to voice his disapproval. This isn’t revolutionary behaviour, but it’s not often we see these dynamics between young men play out on screen.

Connell is gentle, caring and sweet. He’s shy and emotional, and entirely ill-equipped to communicate his feelings. His character is flawed. But over the course of the series, we watch him evolve – he becomes more introspective and increasingly unafraid to call out sexism when he sees it happening. Sadly, we don’t see many depictions of this type of man. I’d go so far as to say we’re starved for it, which is probably why he’s quickly become the Internet’s latest boyfriend. Well, this, and the chain.

5. It makes you relentlessly relive your first love and every single moment of intimacy and heartbreak you’ve ever experienced in exquisite and agonising detail and will leave you feeling like you fell in love and went through the worst breakup of your life all in the space of six hours. Be warned. 

Need I say more? Go on, be a glutton for punishment like me and watch it. You too can ruin your own life by throwing yourself headfirst into the most real, intense and, yes, horny on-screen love story I’ve seen in years. But when you’re a blubbering mess of feelings about to DM your entirely unsavoury and very problematic high school boyfriend, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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