Ordinary People. Smart People. Funny People. Any book or movie title with "people" at the end seems to promise to reveal something disturbing yet profound about the human condition. And Normal People does it in spades. When I first heard of the Hulu original series, I wanted to watch it. And then when I heard it started out as a book, I wanted to read it and then watch it. So I did.
Normal People is the story of Connell and Marianne, two high school seniors in the Irish backwater of Sligo who start sleeping together but don't tell anyone. Connell is popular but poor, and Marianne is rich but an outcast. Connell's mother cleans Marianne's family's house; that's how Connell and Marianne get to know each other. Yet, for all their differences, both are very smart -- and very damaged. For Marianne, being brainy -- and argumentative -- is her identity, a way to be strong and separate herself from the abuse she suffers at the hands of her brother. For Connell, who's shy, the life of the mind is a source of shame and one that sets him apart from his fellow in-crowders -- except when they want to copy his homework. Marianne can't care less about being liked, but fitting in means everything to Connell, and he does whatever it takes to protect the fragile equilibrium of his social standing. It doesn't matter that he doesn't like his friends and can't talk to them the way he talks to Marianne. His acceptance from them means that he can accept himself. Still, despite -- or perhaps because of -- her pariah-hood, Marianne mesmerizes him. She convinces him to apply to the same Dublin college as her and to major in English despite its lack of earning potential because, as she puts is, "it's the only subject you enjoy." In this way they create their own private world, both real and unreal because no one (except Connell's mom) knows about it. Which is lovely and passionate and cozy. Until something happens and it isn't, starting a cycle of heartbreak that may never be broken.
When Marianne and Connell start college the following fall, they're estranged. But eventually they run into each other. And Connell discovers that now it's Marianne who belongs. Like their classmates, she comes from money and can launch into intellectual debates with fervor and ease. Connell, on the other hand, has one pair of shoes and trips over his words. Yet despite all of this and their troubled past, Marianne draws Connell into her circle. Although she now has the upper hand, she still lets people hurt her. In a strange way, this gives their relationship balance, and before long, Marianne and Connell find that they're the same as they ever were, two misunderstoods just trying to make their way.
As time goes on, Connell finds his voice, speaking up in class in an earnest if unpolished way that reveals his love of books. He also starts writing short stories, although it's years before he lets Marianne read one. Writing puts him in touch with his real self, but it's painful. When people ask Marianne if he's really smart, she says that he's the smartest person she knows. Connell and Marianne are happy in their bubble, best friends and more and closer than ever. But when summer comes, Connell loses his job and can't pay his rent. His insecurities about being poor resurface. Rather than moving in with Marianne and being beholden to her, he slinks home to Sligo where nothing ever changes and he can feel normal again. Only being normal has gotten harder, and, as Connell soon realizes, going home in the metaphorical sense is no longer an option.
Normal People is very real and very raw. It examines socioeconomic disparity, depression, and domestic violence. There's nothing cute or whimsical about it, and at times that makes it hard to read. The TV show is the same, so much so that the dialogue mirrors the book to the letter. This quality, mixed with the timeless allure of doomed romance, makes both the book and the show heartbreaking. But they need to be this way to deliver their message: life makes it hard to be true to yourself, sometimes even to the point of having the courage to be with the person you love. The road to peace begins when you value yourself enough to stop being someone you're not. It's the bleakness of this struggle -- universal to everyone and particular, in this case, to Connell and Marianne -- that allows you to appreciate the sun when it creeps through the clouds in the hopeful albeit ambiguous ending. This last act suggests that good things are ahead for Connell and Marianne because of the things that they've taught each other.
Because as even the most seemingly sane person will tell you, there's no such thing as being normal.