“Normal People” Is the Perfect Show for People Who Miss Being Touched
Like the Sally Rooney novel it's based on, the show demonstrates that "touch" is much more than physical contact
Physical intimacy doesn’t start when a hand (or mouth) touches skin. It starts a moment before. I couldn’t escape that realization while watching the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which has no shortage of moments where we see its central couple all but quake with anticipation when they’re in each other’s company. Watching Marianne and Connell come alive on screen, their blushes and sighs so beautifully rendered by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, forced me to reconsider Rooney’s achingly intimate novel. Even as it more forcefully puts its protagonists’ bodies front and center, Normal People’s adaptation makes us realize that being touched, or being denied touch, is something that goes far beyond literal physical contact.
When I first read Rooney’s novel I was drawn to it as a story about alienation. “She hates the person she has become, without feeling any power to change anything about herself”: this was the line, I thought, that captured what this novel was all about. And, indeed, in Edgar-Jones’ hands, Marianne emerges as a fascinating character constantly battling the baffling decisions she makes about herself and her body. But what was on the page a kind of arm’s-length character study (despite Rooney inviting us into her character’s inner monologues) becomes, on screen,a lived-in, fleshed out portrayal. Watching Normal People encouraged me to revisit the novel, sensing it had excavated something that was already there: on the page, after all, this is ultimately a novel about touch, about the ability to reach out to another person who not only sees you as you are but knows you so intimately it’s as if they were constantly reaching inside of you and rearranging your own sense of self.
Indeed, one cannot leaf through Rooney’s novel without happening upon that word, “touch,” and realizing just how central a role it plays in the various duets the novelist stages between aloof Marianne and bashful Connell. It’s such a banal word, but now it pulses with a different kind of power. Tracking it through Rooney’s prose becomes a way to track its entire arc: “He touched her leg and she lay back against the pillow,” “He touches his lips to her skin and she feels holy, like a shrine,” “He had never, ever touched her in front of anyone else before,” “The outside world touches against her outside skin, but not the other part of herself, inside,” “He touches her hair. She feels his fingertips brush the back of her neck. Do you want it like this?” and so on and so forth.
The novel signals its fascination with touch even before the first page. “It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which has been fitly named conversion,” the George Eliot epigraph reads, “that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.” Even before we meet our two protagonists Rooney alerts us to the fact that Normal People is a story about the impressions we have and leave on one another. Moreover, in the context of Rooney’s narrative, Eliot’s prose ends up feeling tinged with the erotic. The image of submission and reception it conjures is laced with images of heated sexual intimacy—or anyway, that’s how Rooney’s novel reframes it for us. From the moment Connell first kisses Marianne in her palatial home (where his mother is employed as a housekeeper: “Don’t tell anyone at school,” he says) and establishes their twisted relationship (“He pitied her in the end,” Marianne thinks to herself soon after, “but she also repulsed him”) to the point where Marianne takes part in BDSM scenarios with a man she barely stands, the novel establishes its fascination with the way the difference between power and sex is one of degree, not of kind. It’s the distinction between a caress and a slap, a hand held and a hand cuffed. “Ever since high school he has understood his power over her,” Connell notes at one point in the novel. “How she responds to his look or the touch of his hand. The way her face colors, and she goes still as if awaiting some spoken order.” Even their emotions feel weighted with tactility. When Connell first tells Marianne he loves her (before questioning whether he does, actually) we’re told he just felt it happen, “like drawing your hand back when you touch something hot.”
As Marianne and Connell grow up, their lives intertwining every so often as they attend university and later move to different cities, the intimate way they know one another’s bodies anchors them to each other. “Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him,” as Connell puts it; their every encounter is a journey through that closed-door room they let themselves explore away from everyone else’s prying eyes. To have read about such intimacies on the page was one thing. Rooney’s prose can be almost clinical in those instances: “Her breath sounded ragged then. He pulled her hips back against his body and then released her slightly. She made a noise like she was choking. He did it again and she told him she was going to come. That’s good, he said.” But to see Connell and Marianne exchange all-too-knowing glances before finally giving in to their basest instincts up on the small screen, Mescal and Edgar-Jones’s flushed faces and heavy breathing anchoring their every interaction, sexual or otherwise, brings to the forefront the very visceral eroticism that’s often sublimated in Rooney’s prose.
When they first have sex, director Lenny Abrahamson (also responsible for the big screen adaptation of Room) keeps both characters in close-ups. This has long been a trope in television when trying to denote sexual intimacy without showing too much, particularly when dealing with underage characters. Close-ups and labored breathing do the heavy lifting of suggesting what’s taking place, a kind of visual synecdoche where the closeness of the camera stands in for the intimacy of the characters at hand. Moreover, the gesture is supposed to make us feel that much closer to these characters, letting us into their state of mind. With no music to score their awkward and steamy encounter, Abrahamson lets us feel like intruding voyeurs—putting us in the very position Marianne had first fantasized about. As she confesses to Connell soon after, when she’d seen him playing rugby earlier, she had realized how much she had wanted to watch him have sex. “Not just with me,” she clarifies. “With anyone. What would it feel like?”
For many watching Normal People while in self-isolation, such a query will resonate less as a rhetorical question and more as a grave concern. Marianne may have been merely being coy and self-effacing—the better to face the popular boy at school who pretends not to know her at school despite meeting her in secret at his house—but her desire wasn’t just a lack of imagination. Sometimes being a spectator can feel like the best way to play out a fantasy. And that fantasy in turn can become a learning opportunity. That’s how Connell himself, who goes on to study literature (of course), conceives of the power of books. When reading Pride & Prejudice all alone, he’s amused at how wrapped up he gets in Austen’s novel. “It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another,” Rooney writes. “But there it is: literature moves him. One of his professors calls it ‘the pleasure of being touched by great art.’” He notes that such a line sounds almost sexual, “And in a way, the feeling provoked in Connell when Mr Knightley kisses Emma’s hand is not completely asexual, though its relation to sexuality is indirect. It suggests to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.”
Such a line of thinking teems with possibility on the page. But what of the power of television, which depends less on our imagination? Away from the interior monologues that make up Normal People the novel, the Hulu/BBCThree adaptation forces us to more pressingly think of Marianne and Connell’s bodies. His rugby physique, especially when seen next to her lithe body, already speaks volumes about the teetering power imbalance they will constantly trade back and forth. The hunger that you read about between the two, that unquenchable yearning they have for one another’s body, is palpable on screen, even when Abrahamson focuses solely on Connell’s clavicles, Marianne’s breasts, or their moaning mouths that give way to tender kisses. Their blushes leap off the screen and make you flush just as much. It’s no surprise that to score a montage of their increasingly acrobatic secret rendezvous the show chooses Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” a song that’s long been associated not just with the second season ender of The OC but with shocking and schlocky scenes on TV. Pit against Marianne and Connell’s budding intimacy its opening lines are reframed anew: “Where are we? What the hell is going on? The dust has only just begun to form, crop circles in the carpet.”
On screen, Normal People is both more erotic and more melancholy than on the page. Or, perhaps, I found myself more entranced by its depiction of the erotic and melancholic relationship Marianne and Connell create with one another because, like many others, I’m famished for connection, for touch. Heap seemed to be singing about this young couple who doesn’t yet know what’s ahead, but she was also singing about all of us watching. By the time she coolly croons “When busy streets, a mess with people, would stop to hold their heads heavy,” over an image of Marianne raking idly through the sand while sitting on an empty beach with Connell, I realized that watching Normal People in a world ruled by social distancing mandates and self-isolation orders makes its message all the more urgent. Its focus on touch, on intimacy, on the alienation that comes from being alone and the brief succor that can only come from feeling held by someone whose touch jolts you even before they actually make contact, feels needlessly timely. A balm I didn’t know I needed. This is why so many of us are retreating to novels and TV shows and movies: not just to escape from the touchless reality around us, but to seek what Connell (and Rooney) so clearly understand about the intimacy that can be nurtured between reader and novel, between viewer and show. We read and watch to remember, perhaps, what it’s like, to live out in the world like…well, normal people.