I’m a huge sucker for stories about first love. Who isn’t? If you’re one of those who has experienced the whirlwind of every maddening impulse that goes with the territory — stopping and racing of heart, one moment floating above, the next falling with a thud — you will know just how special it is, like the first time of everything. No matter how many years you add to your slate, that pehla pehla pyaar is unforgettable. Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which came out in 2018, instantly became the byword for the latest teen romance. What made it stand apart from the standard YA novel was the cragginess of its structure, as it grasshopped over time and place, tracking the turbulent relationship of two Irish teenagers, Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan. And in being able to sample the voices of both its principal characters in an unusual sliding back and forth.
The BBC show (streaming on the American video-on-demand platform Hulu) based on the novel, is almost as good as the book. Perhaps better, because it cuts out some of its slack. It is brought to life by two actors who wear their parts like skin: Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones are Connell and Marianne, even if Mescal looks a tad older than he should, at least when we first meet them, as high-schoolers with a sizzlingly high quotient of mutual attraction.
The problem with too many movies and shows featuring young people in the throes of first love is that they never really feel fresh enough, because Young Love is both a template, and a trope. When you first see these two, though, it’s like watching two wires, live with electricity: their fusing is as much of an inevitability as adding two plus two and making it four. Or, in this instance, one. The picking up of thoughts from each other’s minds. The finishing of each other’s sentences. The knowing exactly where the other person is, in a crowded room, without really looking. Connell and Marianne, who live in the fictional town of Carricklea, near Dublin, see-saw through these stages, knowing that they belong, in the most real sense, to each other: all of this plays out quite beautifully.
The element which makes Normal People quite wonderfully normal is the twosome’s inability to communicate at the most crucial moments of the four years they spend with each other, on and off. You’d think a couple so physically intimate and so intellectually attuned, would never suffer a lapse in emotional connectivity. But we also know that humans are capable of so much complexity that we are quite capable of going opaque when transparency is the need of the moment. There were bits in the 12 half-hour episodes (the first six directed by Lennie Abrahamson; the rest by Hettie Macdonald) when I felt the same impatience at the time of reading the book. But those occasional flat moments gave me a much-needed time-out: being in close proximity to first-time lovers can be quite exhausting. And exhilarating. And that’s normal.