Who Are Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”? – HBO Series Review

Normal People


Title: “Normal People” (HBO series)

Release Date: 2020

Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal, Eliot Salt, Desmond Eastwood, Sarah Greene, Fionn O’Shea


The HBO series “Normal People,” based on the best-selling novel by Sally Rooney, certainly captures the atmosphere of the famous Irish writer’s prose. The plot unfolds unhurriedly, in the somewhat nostalgic aura of the Green Island, and the characters of the story are young people slowly entering adulthood and making their first life choices. However, this is not only an initiation story, but above all a series about love, in which the desire for intimacy is as strong as the panicky fear of intimacy. For the “normal people” of the title are modern neurotics – lost, sometimes annoying, and sometimes alien, and sometimes very close.

“Normal People” and the success of Sally Rooney’s prose

Sally Rooney is an Irish writer whose name is now making a great worldwide career. She made her debut just a few years ago with the novel “Conversations with Friends,” which was very well received, while she became a literary star after writing “Normal People” in 2018. The promotion of the novel was organized with great flair, in the Polish edition on the cover of the publisher (WAB) next to clippings from the English-language opinion press (“The Guardian”, “The New Yorker”, “the New York Times”, “Independent”) we can read, among other things, that it is “one of Barack Obama’s favorite books” and “one of the most important novels of recent years.” To date, more than 3 million copies have been sold and it has been translated into 46 languages.

It looks like this success will also bring popularity to Roooney’s earlier novels, as HBO recently presented a series based on “Conversations with Friends” in addition to an adaptation of “Normal People”. Currently, the writer, born in 1991, is considered the voice of the millenialys generation, her prose portrays the problems faced by this generation and, above all, reaches out to the frustrations and fears they face, which make it difficult to “fit in” with social expectations.

Normal people series review

I started reading Rooney’s prose from the end – that is, from the novel “Beautiful World, Where Are You” (2022) – and I must confess that initially the dominant feeling that accompanied me was… irritation. Annoyance with neurotic characters flitting between life’s twists and turns, encrusted with a whole cross-section of contemporary fashionable themes and ideologies (from feminism to environmentalism to Marxism). Nevertheless, when I look at this prose holistically, I see it as really interesting. Although it is not on my personal top-list next to Elena Ferrante, whom it clearly dethroned in the opinion of connoisseurs, it is impossible to deny its internal consistency.

The repetition of themes such as the hardships of initiation, loneliness, fear of intimacy, the motif of social inequality, mental disorders and a long-term erotic relationship of ambiguous status is distinct and significant. Well, and most important: Sally Rooney cannot be denied what is crucial in literature: a talent for spinning an engaging tale.

“Normal People” – HBO series

The HBO series based on the novel “Normal People” was realized remarkably in line with the spirit of Sally Rooney’s writing. Of course, it is not without significance that the author co-wrote the script of the adaptation. The directing was entrusted to Lenny Abrahams and Hattie Macdonald, and the leading roles were played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. The choice of actors, both in terms of external conditions and the on-screen performances presented, proved to be apt. They both perform credibly in their roles and are able to convey the complex personalities of their characters.

Normal People HBO series analysis

“Normal People” is the story of Marianne and Connell, a girl and a boy from two different worlds, whose fates intertwine at a high school in a small Irish town. She comes from a wealthy, elite family, he is the son of a cleaning lady who takes care of Marianne’s house. At the high school, however, he is the star – the universally popular player on the school team, while she is the shy out-sider with no friends. Marianne and Connell embark on a clandestine and fiery love affair that will take a very volatile turn in subsequent episodes. Just as volatile as their social status will turn out to be: for in her studies at Trinity College in Dublin, it is Marianne, as opposed to Connell, who will enjoy social popularity.

It is this ever-changing tension in the relationships between the characters, as well as their successes and failures, that drive the plot set not only in Dublin, but also in Tuscany and Sweden. No matter how far Marianne and Connell “get”, they will constantly revolve around the same places from the past. Strangeness and attachment, closeness and loneliness are the poles on which they both constantly balance, trying to become the titular “normal people.”

The series “Normal People” – the neurotic love of millenials

The twelve-episode series “Normal People” has been realized extremely ascetically, with no specially designed lead-in or any attention-grabbing embellishments. Even the music appears very unobtrusively, not even for a moment disturbing the reception and the constant mental tension between the characters. A very important role is played by the dialogues and the corporeality of the characters: their facial expressions, appearance, voice and, above all, erotic scenes. It is the latter that expose the couple’s real relationships, but also individual internal conflicts. Hence the significant motif of Marianne’s masochistic sexual predilections, finding explanation in her difficult family situation and negative self-esteem.

Normal people Sally Rooney novel review

Sex is clearly in “Normal People” the key that opens the bolted door to the interior of the sensitive characters. The visual leitmotiv of the door in the series, by the way, seems very significant. It is undoubtedly the most frequently appearing element of space, organizing the space of action of the characters. The opening and closing of various doors here has a literal meaning and more: it is also the door of social advancement, new perspectives and, finally, the door of another person’s heart. Interestingly, it turns out that they can just as easily be opened as slammed shut with a bang and missed opportunities hidden behind them. A door can also prove to be an impassable barrier and the cause of mental entrapment, as in the scene when the depressed Connell is unable to press the handle of his room door and leave the room.

In the foreground in “Normal People” is the original relationship between Marianne and Connell. What seems most intriguing is its ambiguous status, as the relationship balances between sex without commitment, lifelong friendship and eternal destiny – something like the Platonic two halves of an orange, which will find each other in any circumstances. This bizarre hybrid, which is a combination of a 19th-century novel and the modern pattern of an open relationship, grabs your attention and draws you into a complicated and undoubtedly neurotic feeling.

Who are Sally Rooney’s “normal people”?

The series, like Sally Rooney’s novel, is a kind of game with the title label of “normal people.” For who are these “normal people”? Are they Marianne and Connell, struggling with inner dilemmas, or, on the contrary, the rest of the world, of which they want to be a part, but are constantly bouncing off more handles. In the novel, from the very beginning, the relationship of a pair of teenagers is described in terms of transgression of the prevailing norm: “Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him”, Connell thinks of Marianne. However, this is only a pretense, for the notion of normalcy here undergoes constant transformations, finally becoming an empty linguistic formula that describes nothing but the experience of an irreducible sense of one’s own separateness and otherness.


Sally Rooney, „Normal People”, Warszawa 2018.

Natalia Szostak, „Nie umiem tego powstrzymać”. Jane Austen prekariuszy”, „Książki” 2021, nr 6, s. 86 – 90.