top of page

The Normal People Effect by Lily Spencer

“Most people go through their whole lives, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”

It was April, we were deep in lockdown, and I found myself, along with the rest of our generation, mesmerised by the love story of Connell and Marianne. I was glued to the TV and I thought about the two characters all day long. Every once in a while a TV show like this one comes around; a show talked about so much that it’s far more time consuming to avoid it, than to give in to its binge-worthy charms. Of course, often behind a great show, lies an even greater novel. I had been recommended Rooney’s Normal People by a friend back in February, but all I had done was add it to the mental reading list inside my head. Having now devoured its pages, I am kicking myself that I wasn’t one of those people who could smugly say ‘I read the book before the show came out.’ Nonetheless, I think the viewing and reading go hand in hand – you would be foolish to not do both.

the missing piece of young adult fiction

Sally Rooney was just 26 when her debut novel Conversations with Friends was published, and 27 when Normal People came out in 2018. From her age, there is no doubting how she was able to so perfectly capture contemporary teenage life in Connell and Marianne. Her words felt like they were the missing piece of young adult fiction, and I feel as though I truly learnt something from Normal People.

Let’s start with the characters: Connell. I was incredibly moved by the depiction of Connell’s anxiety and how it affected every decision he made. I have never read such an accurate representation of anxiety of people in their late teens and early 20s, and I only wish I had been able to read this book when I was 18 years old and confused at how so much seemed to be changing around me. In the limited series, a lot of what we see are Connell’s physical expressions of anxiety and depression; the panic attacks, the crying and often the inability to express his feelings coherently. In the novel, we are able to follow his thought patterns which only make the former descriptions more impactful. Rooney gave us a popular teenage boy who was really suffering on the inside, and it goes to show that what you see on the outside is only half the story. As someone who really struggled in my first year at university, I was able to empathise so strongly with Connell and it reminded me that so many people don’t talk about ‘not fitting in’ because they assume everyone else has.

'just because someone is damaged, it doesn’t mean that they are not worthy of love.'

Marianne. A lonely girl who was simultaneously confident and extremely insecure. Rooney managed to perfectly blur the line between the two in this case. Marianne was headstrong but we were also able to see how much her childhood and upbringing had affected the way she viewed her position in the world. I think this is why she spends so much of the novel doubting her own self-worth and was constantly looking to others to value it for her. What I loved about her character was that she never tried to conceal her intelligence – she was unapologetic and opinionated, which is something that people so often, and wrongly, feel threatened by. Despite the lack of love at home, Marianne was still able to offer her heart to those who deserved it, even when she felt like she didn’t deserve it herself. Although it took her a long time, she eventually understood that just because someone is damaged, it doesn’t mean that they are not worthy of love.

The plot. The transition in this novel from secondary school to university was written so beautifully. For most people, this is the time in our lives where we really change. Some grow up, some get left behind, and some evolve into a completely different version of themselves. Rooney makes an amazing commentary on how we allow ourselves to be restrained by the opinions of others, before realising that the only opinions that matter are those of the people we love. Connell and Marianne were both flawed, but their ability to love each other despite these flaws was what made their story so special.

I think every English student can agree that the depiction of Connell’s seminars was painfully spot-on. So much so, it felt like Rooney must have sat in on one of our own classes at some point. The university discourse: the self-discovery, the angst and the independence was told brilliantly through Connell and Marianne’s arguably different experiences. To see the two almost switch places from high school to university highlighted that who you are in school does not define who you are for the rest of your life. For me it raised the question of: do we ever really know who we are? Or is life all about the unpredictability of it all?

The multiple misunderstandings between Connell and Marianne, while becoming somewhat of a running joke, were poignant in explaining how modern human relationships can be so complex. In a time where social media can trap us in an endless cycle of gossip and painful comparisons, we are reminded that sometimes the only way to hear the truth is if we sit down and talk about it. Reputation, gossip, pride and bad timing were some of the reasons that Connell and Marianne parted ways over the years. However, what always brought them back together were their raw and honest conversations that they weren’t able to have with other people.

Things will not be bad forever.

After I read the last page of the novel I tiptoed to my housemate’s room to lend it to her, and then I went to sleep. It was the following afternoon when I felt compelled to go back to that last page and read it all over again. I had a sudden, overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t done with the characters, that I needed to make sure I really understood what I had taken from the novel’s conclusion. This is what I found:

Normal People is a book about two teenagers who become entwined in each other’s lives as they make the tentative journey from childhood to adulthood. It’s about how we, as individuals, don’t always realise the impact we have on others. It’s about how Connell and Marianne ended up helping each other more than they could have ever realised, and how they both gave each other something completely invaluable. Ultimately, it’s about the fact that even if things are bad for weeks, months, or maybe years, it does not mean they will be bad forever. The loudest thing that Rooney’s captivating Normal People said to me was this: With the help of the people who truly love us, we will be okay.

Lily Spencer

I reckon it's pretty telling of the times that the foundation of Lily and I's friendship is a zoom seminar - we will always be able to trace it back to 2020, no doubt. But I think it's also telling on the need to a) human connection and b) the intuition we develop of people when we really need it. Lily came into my life at a time where I didn't think I needed or wanted more friends, I was pretty settled, but what I found in Lily was arguably exactly what I needed and wanted in a friend. She is also the only person who has been able to actually verbalise my thoughts about Normal People.

A gorgeous soul, a beautiful writer and a kind friend, Lily is studying English at the University of Exeter.


bottom of page