Teen romance stories are almost always about the feeling of a shift in power. They channel the thrill of turning a position of weakness into one of strength: the ugly, poor, or otherwise disadvantaged using their less apparent abilities—talent, wit, emotional acuity—to claim for themselves a better role in the social hierarchy. In teen romance, things tend to change all at once rather than gradually. A relationship’s subtext shifts through strange, rare moments of shared perception, and then, in some moment of truth—often a school dance or other public event—the subtext becomes explicit and replaces what came before. A received, social understanding is replaced with an interpersonal, emotional truth that levels all disparities.
Normal People, a novel by the Irish writer Sally Rooney recently adapted into a TV series on Hulu, is not a traditional teen romance, but it is a love story that begins when its protagonists, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), are in the final year of secondary school. Connell is working-class, confident, and popular; Marianne is wealthy, standoffish, and almost universally disliked. Connell’s mother works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house, and the stilted, fumbling conversations between the teens there lead to a romantic relationship that Connell insists on keeping secret. They fall out, then encounter each other months later at Trinity College Dublin, where Connell finds Marianne newly confident, surrounded by a group of intellectual, wealthy friends.
The show follows Connell and Marianne as they pick up and pause their relationship several more times, but the version that unfolded in secondary school feels to me like the template for the changes in their fortunes and their romantic status throughout the rest of the story. In Carricklea, the fictional town in County Sligo where they grew up, Connell enjoys a higher status among their peers, but in the wider world, Marianne has all the advantages. Neither fully apprehended this as teenagers, although it contributed to the animus between Marianne and her classmates, and Connell happily manipulated his standing to create terms for their relationship that favored him. Then, when he encounters her at a party after a lonely first few months of college, both realize that the context of their relationship has changed dramatically and permanently. In Carricklea, other things mattered more than wealth, but at college in Dublin, class is a blatant and inescapable fact.
This tangle of desire and class is a common romantic setup—seen in everything from Gossip Girl to Pride and Prejudice—and the tension of love across class lines usually dissipates once the lovers get together (or the story simply ends). Rooney, a lifelong Marxist, doesn’t let the tension drop; it keeps coming up throughout Normal People, turning it into a provocation. Is it even worth trying, the story asks, to love someone when the scales will never be balanced? Marianne and Connell’s relationship is idiosyncratic; treating it as the sum of sociopolitical contingencies would be a disservice. But it’s often those contingencies—lost jobs, abusive families, a painful, inborn awareness of status—that drive them apart. How can people fall in love in a world structured by power?
When Connell encounters Marianne at Trinity, he’s been invited to a party by Gareth, a foppish campus celebrity type engaged in a battle with student activists over his debate club’s decision to invite a neo-Nazi to speak at the school. After awkward small talk in the packed, hazy lounge of Gareth’s campus apartment—when Connell mentions that he’s sharing a room, Gareth’s brain appears to short-circuit as he mutters, “Oh, that’s… brutal, man”—he leads Connell outside to meet his girlfriend. There in the purple-pink dusk is Marianne: She has a new haircut, her eyes are outlined in thick black eyeliner, and she’s wearing a velvet blazer and smoking. Her initial surprise at seeing Connell quickly gives way to a sharp, dark amusement.
The two split off and find a corner to engage in a high-level emotional sparring match, in the course of which Marianne reveals a surprising level of scorn for Gareth. When Connell skewers him as a Holocaust denier, Marianne concedes that dating him is a failure of her “ideological purity.” She then asks Connell if he’s seeing someone, and he admits he’s finding it difficult to meet people at Trinity. “A bit different from home, I suppose,” he adds. “Probably why I’m good at it,” she replies.
Although Marianne continues to privately voice disdain for her coterie of one-percenter friends, she is still unmistakably one of them. Even after Connell is welcomed into their circle, he remains on the margins. The summer after their first year in college, Connell and his roommate Niall backpack across Europe and meet Marianne and her new boyfriend, Jamie, at her family’s vacation home in Italy. (In Rooney’s novel, Jamie is introduced by the biographical detail that his father is “one of the people who had caused the financial crisis—not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.”)
Jamie goes out of his way to make Connell and Niall feel unwelcome at a backyard dinner the evening after they arrive, using a dispute over the semantics of champagne coupes versus flutes to volley a series of escalating snipes at backpacking, hostels, tourists, and scholarship recipients. He begins directing these attacks at Marianne as well, culminating with him breaking a glass and pouring wine on the floor in an altercation inside the house.
Earlier that day, while grocery shopping in the quaint Italian town closest to the villa, Marianne acknowledges her position of economic privilege relative to Connell. “I am conscious of the fact that we got to know each other because your mother works for my family,” she tells him, adding that she imagines her mother is a bad employer, something Connell confirms. “Why hasn’t this come up before?” she asks. “Honestly, I think it’s totally fair if you resent me.”
“I don’t resent you,” Connell responds. “Why would I? I just don’t think I’m processing the change all that well.”
Rooney went to Trinity herself; one imagines that an observation through Connell’s eyes that “all the guys in his class wear the same waxed hunting jackets and plum-colored chinos” is drawn from life. In a 2019 New Yorker profile, she described her experience meeting the children of the ruling elite for the first time in college. “What I wasn’t prepared for was encountering the class of people who run the country,” she said. “I had a feeling, on one hand, of being appalled, but on the other hand a real sense of wanting to prove myself to people, to prove I’m just as good as they are. I don’t know why—it would have made a lot more sense to just let them be—but it’s a fascination that’s not purely revulsion.”
In the United States, there are some differences: In my experience, the same stratum of the elite understands the aesthetic and political benefit of cosplaying as working-class, dressing and performing accordingly. Still, despite differences in style, I recognize a familiar young one-percenter worldview in Marianne’s college circle and, to some extent, in Marianne. The specific strain of irritation it triggers made it difficult for me to evaluate Normal People purely on its merits when I first read the novel. As Marianne and Connell traded positions of relative power, it never felt to me like an even game. How could I sympathize with a character whose wealth shielded her from so many common hardships—hardships that her friends and loved ones had to face?
The answer, of course, is that it will never be an even game, despite the romance genre’s promise of a satisfying conclusion. Normal People is something else: a document of the sacrifices, gains, and adjustments it takes to keep a relationship intact. The night after the dinner party in Italy, Marianne sleeps in Connell’s room and attempts to tell him that, like Jamie, her brother is abusive, and his actions are enabled by the rest of her family. “Last time I was home, my brother said he wished I was dead,” she says into the dark room. Connell offers the wrong response—“What provoked it? Like, how did the argument start?”—and Marianne, sensing blame and disbelief, shuts down. He then asks a question that mirrors hers from earlier: “Why’d you never say any of this to me before?”
It’s this aspect of the novel that I appreciated seeing play out in the television show: how many attempts it takes for Marianne and Connell to understand what the other is saying. Moments like this, when they fall just short of understanding each other, accumulate until they get it right. Marianne splits with her family after she has a violent confrontation with her brother and her mother asks her to send back the keys to the family apartment where she’s been living in Dublin. It becomes clear that her family’s wealth was never simply a resource; it also kept her trapped in a family dynamic of endless, gendered violence. She spends Christmas with Connell’s family, and as she moves out of the apartment, she mentions that it never felt like home.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” Connell says as he helps her pack her things. “You’d be somewhere else entirely,” Marianne replies. “You’d be a different person.”