Normal People is about shifting power dynamics, not love
Normal People is about the power dynamics that are present inside and outside of a romantic relationship and how they shift over time (over years and also over moments) because of the relationship itself, external factors, and individual factors like insecurity and mental health.
What it isn’t is a “love story for the millenial generation.” When people say “love story,” they usually use it to describe a story about love that’s positive or idealistic (Normal People isn’t either one of these) – or if they don’t, they qualify the phrase more (like “tragic love story” or “dark love story”). Or like “millennial love story.” That’s such a generic phrase. What do people mean when they use that phrase? That it’s supposed to characterize a generation? Normal People doesn’t characterize a generation – or if it does, it doesn’t characterize a generation as much as I think it characterizes like college relationships and relationships in general.
When people describe Normal People as a “millennial love story,” they don’t get the core of the actual book. Connell and Marianne’s relationship isn’t a very healthy, romantic, or ideal relationship most of the time. But that’s the point, and that’s what the book is about. More specifically, I think the book is actually about:
- How two individually messed up people (Connell and Marianne, and also Connell and Helen to some extent) overcome and don’t overcome their personal struggles to relate to, be with, and show up for each other.
- How people (like everyone in the book) fail to communicate over and over again, even though they both desperately want to communicate with each other. How people (Connell and Marianne) won’t let themselves be loved even when it’s right in front of them because of their own personal neuroses and insecurities
- How two flawed people (Connell and Marianne) who aren’t quite healthy themselves can find themselves in an unhealthy and healthy relationship with each other, at different times and different moments.
- How timing and mental health and security often determine who you end up with.
- How obsession and idealization of someone (Connell and Marianne’s idealizations of each other) can lead you away from good relationships (Connell’s relationship with Helen) and into bad ones (Marianne’s relationships with Lukas and Jamie) and back into good ones.
- How friends (Peggy, namely) can really mess with your romantic relationships, or be models for good ones, or be there for you, or be there for you only sometimes.
- How societal expectations and norms, both real and perceived, can positively and negatively affect romantic relationships and friendships.
Not all relationships are as on and off and up and down and painstakingly uncommunicative as Marianne and Connell’s relationship. But I think all people and all relationships struggle with some of the same things that Marianne and Connell struggle with, at least at some point in time.
I’ve heard some people say that the writing in Normal People is either not good or just mediocre. I mean, it’s not like lush prose or anything, but I think Normal People is really well-written. More specifically, I think Rooney’s writing style emphasizes and adds to the story she is telling. I think sometimes her writing can seem disjointed or vanilla or incomplete, but I think that just illustrates the bad communication between Marianne and Connell and other characters, the way they don’t quite click in the moment or how they say what they think the other person wants to hear instead of what they actually mean. Rooney’s writing also reflects how Marianne and Connell are both unreliable narrators – the writing isn’t inconsistent, it’s just that often, Marianne’s and Connell’s perspectives about the world around them and how other people perceive them are fundamentally unreliable.