Last spring, Normal People gave us two star-making turns, some heartbreaking drama, the chain that shook the world - and some pertinent questions about the nature of our relationships. Deputy Arts and Culture Editor Paola Córdova asks what defines our relationships - our innermost wants, or quirks of circumstance?
Sally Rooney broke all of our hearts with the ending of Normal People, be it if you watched the BBC special or read the book (as I did). We see two people in a will-they-won’t-they scenario that drags on for years and years, only to find out – you guessed it – they don’t.
The ending is heartbreaking without being earth shattering; I, for one, saw it coming. The book doesn’t even end with a tearful kiss goodbye between Connell and Marianne (the aforementioned protagonists). It ends with her nonchalantly telling him to pursue his dreams in New York away from her in Dublin while they sit side by side on their shared bed.
A few pages before, we finally get the two on a balanced social standing with each other, holding the same amount of power, and, at long last, in an official relationship after four years of pining for one another. Then it falls apart before our eyes on that final note of ambiguity. Even though I expected it, I felt robbed. I felt robbed of the happiness I hoped for for Connell and Marianne. My heart ached whenever they missed opportunities to come together, only to end up with someone who would never measure up to their true object of affection (that is, each other). The missed opportunities, the unspoken words, the deep seated hatred of themselves that prevented them from being with one another fully – it all felt so familiar in the vaguest way possible.
What I mean by that is that it creeps up on you – the realisation that the nagging feeling that comes upon you during the rocky trajectory of their love story (if you can really even call it one) comes from the universal pain in the ass we like to call situationships. If you don’t know exactly what a situationship is, it can most easily be described to you by looking to the people you know who are “talking” or “chatting” with someone and have been for months. Maybe (almost always, really) they are having sex, cuddling with each other into the night, sometimes even kissing in front of other people. They are not dating formally and will make a point to tell everyone that. But then they also spend hours together several times a week for months on end. They text constantly and speak of each other fondly, but tell each other they “really just don’t want anything serious at the moment.” Sometimes, they see other people, and sometimes they tell each other they do without ever really taking any liberties, and sometimes they pretend that they’re not, to spare the other pain. When one of them starts dating someone else seriously, the other stays around like an immortal fruit fly, waiting for something to happen before they can do anything about it without claiming jealousy. Think Carrie and Big from Sex and the City.
Now, being a university student, it’s almost a rule of thumb you come across one of these. You meet at a party (RIP to all our social lives) or on a dating app (RIP our love lives) or they’re a friend of a friend, or you encounter them simply by pure chance, and you hit it off almost immediately. There’s an amazing sense of chemistry, you read the same books and like the same music, you share a similar background and excitedly connect with one another. You start ditching your friends to hang out with each other and beam when you receive a text message from them. You listen to the music they send you and read the terrible poetry they write you (or simply listen to them recite Allen Ginsberg until your ears bleed) and in doe eyed naïveté you respond with feigned amazement hoping to elicit a positive response. You daydream about the romantic moments you share with one another and those marathon makeout sessions that make your head spin in circles. This is all until one of you starts to wonder whether what’s happening is serious because you haven’t had that “define the relationship” talk, but you’re almost too afraid to ask and hear the wrong thing.
When you read Normal People, perhaps what is most evident throughout is that Marianne and Connell will always choose each other when it comes down to it. They will not even contest or consider their options if the other calls them to their side. They are magnetically attached, so perfect for each other that the idea of them being apart is ludicrous – even within their own minds. With them, there are no games, just tortured silences that keep them from being together. Mishaps in communication reoccur throughout their time apart. It is not that they don’t want to be together, it’s just that they can’t be together. The timing is all off with them, but we remain convinced that they are each other’s “person” and Sally Rooney does absolutely nothing to show us otherwise. When they do not end up with each other, we remain hopeful (especially as the book is so ambiguous) that the saying “right person wrong time” is true for them.
So the dull pain you feel from reading or watching Connell and Marianne’s story comes from understanding from a fundamentally human viewpoint that their suffering is valid and legitimate. Even though we have not all experienced an exact replica of their relationship, Rooney does an excellent job at building her characters to be more realistic and relatable than most two dimensional tropes in narrative fiction. Marianne’s masochism strikes a chord with us, as does Connell’s depression and constant loneliness.
The worst part, however, is seeing their situationship and briefly remembering situationships past, or perhaps an one that you just can’t shake no matter how circumstances change. A generation with an aversion to commitment, mummy and daddy issues galore, and zero obligation to one another in the post apocalyptic mess we call 2008-2021, we all share the plight of wanting to be wanted so badly, we stick around each other in hopes that we have what Connell and Marianne do. We tell ourselves lies about the way that the people with whom we have a situationship think about us – that they are not in a relationship with us because they cannot be. We romanticize takeaway pizzas and days spent indoors with no additional company because we want a love story that transcends the traditional dating narrative before we have serious relationships of our own. We want the tortured romance between two friends (who really aren’t just friends), and we want it to end happily for us.
Seeing the protagonists of Normal People not even get a shot at that happy ending maybe hits us extra hard because we as an audience almost got exactly what we wanted, even though we might have subconsciously known we weren’t going to have it anyway. We let our hearts race in our chests as Connell asks Marianne to ask him to stay, expecting her to do something different to what they have done to each other throughout the novel. When she tells him to go, it’s almost like we received the crushing reality of our own situationships handed to us after ripping out our racing hearts.
In the words of situationship Tik Tok, “If they wanted to, they would.”