Sally Rooney’s Normal People can only be described as a literary sensation. Published in 2018, this story of boy-meets-girl and their tumultuous transition into adulthood has sold over a million copies, appeared on what seems like every Best Books list ever and been lauded (more than once) as the novel of the decade. Aged 28 and with only her second book, the Irish author established herself as the voice of a generation.
For my friends and I – who, as early twentysomethings, aren’t so far removed from the chaos of what Normal People’s protagonists go through – such seemingly OTT plaudits ring totally (and sometimes painfully) true.
Normal People is a gut-punch of a novel, one that offers a compulsive and unflinching insight into what it means to be young and in (and out of) love. It’s an exploration of how identity is shaped by the people we surround ourselves with; how the decisions we make, no matter how small, can change our lives forever.
Marianne and Connell find themselves entangled at the centre of this story. Their relationship gets off to a false start at school in rural Ireland and develops at university in Dublin, culminating in an incredibly perceptive character study about the pitfalls of intimacy, the sometimes loneliness of family life and the divisiveness of class structures.
Rooney has moulded these ideas together with razor sharp turns-of-phrase that reflect emotions we’ve all had, and her ability to put it all down on paper so succinctly is astonishing. It’s equal parts pulling-your-hair-out-with-frustration at their missteps, then holding-your-breath-with-anticipation because you care about Marianne and Connell so much that you’ll read the book in one sitting.
Either way, you have to know what happens next. What does it mean to be close to someone? How much of yourself can you surrender whilst still being, well, yourself?
It’s no surprise, then, that the BBC (who are also adapting Rooney’s first novel Conversations With Friends) swooped in for the film rights for this hugely popular millennial anti-fairytale. Thankfully they’ve done Normal People justice – firstly by making it for television, secondly by turning it into 30-minute episodes as perfectly formed as Rooney’s chapters. This isn’t a book that needs dramatic hour-long instalments nor a big, splashy Netflix treatment.
Filmed over four-and-a-half months between Dublin and the lush, dramatic landscapes of Sligo in northwest Ireland, Normal People is a star-making turn for the two young actors at its heart: Paul Mescal as Connell and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne.
“I learned a lot from working on this,” 21-year-old Edgar-Jones tells me. We’re talking through her webcam, and the Londoner’s thick Marianne-esque fringe grazes her eyes. That hangover from filming aside, she’s not an obvious fit for a character described by Rooney in her book as viewing herself as “not only plain but garishly ugly”. Then again, Marianne’s self-image (something she wrestles with throughout the novel) may well stand in stark contrast to what she actually looks like.
“More than anything it was a lot of pressure holding up a show,” she continues. That, plus “living away from home in Dublin for the first time” meant that “you really do grow up. I felt 21 at the start of filming. By the end I felt 53.”
Raised in Muswell Hill in north London by a Northern Irish mum and Scottish dad, Edgar-Jones is now holed up for lockdown in nearby Finsbury Park. She cut her teeth in Cold Feet, ITV’s long-running Manchester-set dramedy. Acting alongside the show’s seriously experienced ensemble of “grown-up” actors (Hermione Norris, Fay Ripley and James Nesbitt amongst them) taught her how to move in front of the camera without being self-conscious and how to express complex, intense emotions without necessarily voicing them.
These skills were live-savers in Normal People, where the sex scenes are raw and stolen glances carry so much weight that they sometimes replace entire conversations.
Still, you would never know this was Edgar-Jones’ first proper lead role. She captures Marianne’s battle with herself, her aloofness and intelligence, as subtly and deftly as Rooney’s impeccable prose. Her chemistry with Mescal is palpable (“we have such a great friendship,” she says) as Connell and Marianne fumble through life, losing their way and finding it again with many stumbling blocks in between.
Produced by Rooney and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who was Oscar-nominated for 2015’s kidnap drama Room, this is high-quality, thought-provoking TV to immerse yourself in at a time when the world is best shut out.
The Face talks to bright-eyed and thoughtful Daisy Edgar-Jones about what it means to be good, how she perfected her thinking face, and what it was like to play one of modern literature’s most talked-about heroines.
What makes Sally Rooney such a strong contemporary voice in fiction?
Her writing is timeless in the sense that she takes very domestic settings and makes them massive. For example: Marianne and Connell’s first kiss is this big moment that changes the course of their whole lives, but it just happens in Marianne’s front room.
That’s wonderful for a reader, because it doesn’t feel too far away from you. We’ve all fallen in love for the first time, we’ve all been heartbroken and experienced growing up.
Sally has this very special way of writing where it’s very much just you in their world and it feels personal for everybody. As a reader you feel like Marianne and Connell are yours, and Sally doesn’t shy away from talking about dark subjects that are incredibly human. Her characters are flawed and complicated; they’re not always likeable. It’s really brave and refreshing to be able to write characters that your audience is sometimes going to really dislike. You can see yourself far more in them, because we all don’t like ourselves sometimes.
Tell me about meeting Sally for the first time. Did she talk you through Marianne’s character?
I first met her at the [script] read-through and she was lovely. But it was a very strange day – I had terrible imposter syndrome reading the character out in front of other people. Sally was actually in New York writing her next novel while we were filming, so she wasn’t on-set a huge amount. But Paul and I both got a copy of Normal People with a little note from her saying she was so excited. Her book is so incredibly detailed that you don’t have a huge amount of questions, it’s all there for you.
How did you get under Marianne’s skin?
It was a real challenge. Marianne and Connell are both very deep thinkers – there’s a fine line between showing the camera that you’re having a deep thought and looking vacant!
I read the book a huge amount of times and wrote a very detailed summary of how I felt Marianne changed throughout the story. There’s an interesting balance between the chapters where you get two sides of each character. In the chapters from Marianne’s perspective, I always felt that she was coming from a very warm place. She’s a vulnerable and kind person that wants to be better, but feels unlovable and unworthy of kindness herself.
From Connell’s perspective she’s comfortable, confident and abrasive, and she doesn’t feel things as deeply. For me it was about balancing the way that Connell views Marianne, as opposed to the way she really feels inside. That was interesting because I think we all have an idea of ourselves and the way we come across that might be very different to the way we actually do.
Do you personally relate to Marianne’s coming-of-age?
There is one thing in particular that really resonated when it came to Marianne. I think it’s really strange when you’re in school with a set group of people. I went to a tiny secondary school – I only had 22 girls in my whole year. Growing up from 11 to 16, you feel different, but it’s hard to be different when you’re in the same environment. Everyone views you in the same way that they did when you were 11 years old. But I found that when I went to college and met other people, I could become the person I thought I’d grown to be.
I think that’s something that we all develop as we grow up, [when] our sense of identity starts to change. It’s only really when you reintroduce yourself to people that you can fulfil that.
Do you think Normal People presents an accurate depiction of contemporary relationships, mental health, intimacy and sexuality?
Definitely. When Marianne loses her virginity to Connell, that is a wonderfully accurate depiction of what it’s like. It’s not glamorous or beautiful, it’s clunky and awkward. We’ve all got this expectation that it’s going to be billowing sheets and warm glowing candles and everything’s going to be great! But it’s not. It’s just a bit weird.
I think there’s a real taste for that at the minute, which is why shows like Sex Education are so good. Intimacy always seems like a taboo subject, but it’s important to watch healthy depictions of that. The way Connell treats Marianne in that scene, he’s very worried about her comfort and he wants to make sure she’s completely safe. The whole story and the way it’s written is unapologetic about anxiety and depression and sex. Those are part of life, so why wouldn’t we have an open dialogue about it?
Did you face any particular challenges while filming?
Yeah. Bits that I remember very vividly from reading the book, doing those particular scenes – I always wanted to make sure to get them right because I loved reading them and wanted to do them justice. I found the final scene very tricky because the last chapter is so much from Marianne’s perspective, and so much is left unsaid. That’s very hard to communicate without any words.
The first and last scenes of a film or series are so important in terms of the taste the audience gets left with, so I knew it was crucial to get that beat right. And I think the final scene that we got to in the end is perfect. I couldn’t be happier.
What do you think it means to be a “normal” person?
There are no set rules on what it means and I think that’s what growing up tells you. Things that make you stand out or make you feel odd, particularly at school, are actually perfectly normal and should be embraced. We live in a world that taunts us with images of perfection and we all feel that we’re not quite living life the way we should. Just being OK with the way you do things is really healthy and important to strive for.
Trying to keep our spirits up in quarantine is helped by proper TV like Normal People, so thanks to you, Daisy. But how are you staying sane?
Well! It’s been a challenge because I’m quite an active person, so I’ve found not doing much in the day quite stressful. I’ve had to schedule my days, which is very sad. I get up at a specific time and ring my grandparents, then I’ll do a bit of exercise. I’ve been growing some carrots, which I’m quite excited about, and doing some cross-stitching. And my mum bought me a Harry Potter puzzle so I’m doing that tonight!
Normal People will land as a boxset on BBC Three via iPlayer on Sunday 26th April, and will air with weekly double episodes on BBC One at 9pm from Monday 27th April