The rawness of Love. A "Normal People"review.
For us in the United Kingdom, it will probably be remembered as THE serie of the lockdown. I am referring to Normal People, the BBC/Hulu 12 episodes Tv adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel of a couple of years ago.
I am not sure how many of you read the book. I personally did and although it was a good companion on my daily bus ride, I did not consider it as a book to remember in decades, but maybe just a pleasurable tale of young love.
The serie is a different story. It extensively is quite loyal to the book but it has opened to me so many more doors than the book has so after an initial reluctancy, I decided to write this post.
The scene takes place in Ireland, two students in sixth form, in the last year before entering the adventure of adulthood and going to University in the big city. It is the beginning of an overwhelmingly intense on- and-off relationship between Marianne and Connell.
They come from different backgrounds: she comes from a wealthy family while he is the son of a single mom who happens to be the cleaner of Marianne’s family. They are both very smart and academically successful but while Marianne is an outsider whose self esteem is punctually shaken by her self-doubt and the bullying from her classmates, Connell is confident- mostly on the surface as we will discover later on- attractive and popular. What are the odds that they will fall in love?
Oh but they do. And they fall for an intense, tormented love they will never seem to really bounce back from.
What struck me the most from the serie is how it succeeded in portraying intimacy from adolescence to young adulthood in such a raw, spontaneous way that it was hard to tell for the viewers if they were still spectators or they were instead in the room with a partner of their past or a fantasy of their present. The love and connection are palpable, Marianne and Connell are born to be exactly on the same wave length but their relationship somehow never seems to thrive and take off. Despite sharing an inescapable and profound mutual understanding, tiny and unforgivable mismatching, as well as hurtful scars, come between Marianne and Connell all along their story. But as they repeatedly tell each other over and over the years when they find each other again “ with nobody it is like it is with you”
Thanks to outstanding acting – well at least from Paul Mescal playing Connell- directors and script, the characters become so relatable and their pain of loss, abandonment, incomprehension, disconnection and above all that enormous existential void both characters experience, are felt on our skin. Why is their painful love so relatable?
Because in different shapes and forms we have all been there. It is just an inevitable side of human existence. Not all of us went through the same experiences, we substantially differ in the way we have encountered and “survived” relationships. For some it is early on, for others it is when they are adults already. Nevertheless, feeling pain when we long for someone is a beat that cannot be skipped in life.
Intimate relationships are tricky. Some relationships are insolvable. We cannot stay together, we cannot stay apart, love and hurt walk hand in hand and sometimes we do not seem to be able to let that hand go. Finding a way out of that pattern can be excruciatingly painful and feels just impossible. But what makes a relationship more insolvable than others?
There are many factors that weigh in.. but here we go again. The attachment story of the partners play a determining role.
Let’s take Marianne emotional world for example. It is heavily tainted by abuse and neglect. She lives with a gelid, fully absent self-absorbed mother, and her abusive older brother Alan. Her father passed away and we learn early on that he was physically abusive to her mother and most certainly to Marianne (definitely in the book version). Her self-esteem is non-existent, her brightness is meaningless and invisible to her family- and a threat to her brother- and most importantly to herself. Marianne learns early on that she is not lovable and if she wants love, she will have to accept pain- including physical pain- and humiliation.
Connell on the other hand seems to have been brought up by the warmest of mothers who provided him with love and nurture . As psychologists, we would probably define his attachment style as “secure”: he appears to have had an emotionally available caregiver that allowed him to build his self-esteem and self love, and to trust others. However, Connell’s mum did have him when she was herself a teenager and that comes with undeniable challenges.
When we do have a closer look at their family history, we notice Marianne and Connell share something important: they grew up without male figures and most importantly, neither of them, albeit for different reasons, ever witnessed a healthy couple relationship in their whole life. We can assume that when they fall in love they have no parachutes, no available emotional scripts in their experience that would guide them through such an overwhelming and life defining chapter of their journey. They also both know abandonment very well but developed complementary strategies to protect themselves from it. One develops dependence, the other avoidance, which are both sides of the same coin: insecure attachment.
With the years passing by, Connell and Marianne seem to progressively find the compass in their journey, they learn from each other, their self-esteem is tested, shaken and rebuilt to a point where they are more able to be together and at the same time individually grow. At the end of the serie, they share a deep connection that will also sadly allow them to separate.
Probably their paths will cross again, they may stay in each other’s life or their wings may fly them to brand new chapters.
I feel that the serie’s finale emphasizes something crucially important: despite adverse early life circumstances and history of insecure attachment, we can still have a chance to heal our wounds and be able to form secure relationships in adulthood.
Yes, family history and early experiences have a huge impact but they do not necessarily have the undisputed power to shape our future relationships forever.
Normal People sticks to our minds, it invades our unconscious and dreams. We may struggle to shake it off especially during this quarantine where time stood still. It may bring us back to unsolved relationships of the past but also of the present, it may unravel feelings that we probably will never entirely process.
And that’s okay.