The drive back down to Providence crosses between two of my own realities as it crosses state borders. Every single time I embark on the journey back to campus, the hour-long car ride is always accompanied by a torrential downpour. The kind of rain that loudly pounds against the windshield and consumes all corners of your mind. The sort of drive where I momentarily revert into my five-year old self, scared of the darkness and bombarding droplets that seemed to surround us. My dad likes to joke that it’s the universe’s way of trying to keep me at home; sometimes I think he is absolutely right. And it makes the return just a little bit harder each time.
Gone are the pink walls and scratched up wooden floors from my childhood bedroom, and I am once again surrounded by four concrete walls where my photos dangle from poorly attached Command strips. I don’t even bother unpacking the excessive amount of clothes from my month at home. I yank my iPad from my backpack and climb right into bed, ignoring my duffel bag sitting in the corner. I would do anything to stay in the safe haven I had built for myself for the past month and keep the reality of the looming semester at an arm’s distance away.
I didn’t want to be on campus. After weeks of waking up in an appropriately-sized bed, my mother happily cooking me meals, and driving around aimlessly with my hometown friends, I couldn’t fathom diving right back into the spring semester within the next three days. How could Brown expect me to get back to waking up before the sun emerges after my hometown lovingly gave me a free pass for sleeping an unlimited number of hours each day? The impending transition seemed impossible and ruthless.
Half-asleep from the unsettling journey, I tried to find a comfortable position on my untouched, now-hardened twin XL bed. I coped with my return to school the only way I knew how to: through familiarity. Muscle memory kicked in as my fingers began swiping and tapping until I found myself on the Hulu app, hovering over the play button for Season 1, Episode 1 of Normal People. Ah yes—what better way to ease back into my everyday life than through the everyday lives of others?
Sally Rooney’s Normal People permeated my life during the depths of quarantine in 2020. I had a copy of the novel sandwiched between other books I bought, read, and proceeded to tuck away in the back of my mind over the years of high school. The constant state of chaos and stress that defined my high school years interfered with my ability to truly appreciate Rooney’s characters and their sentiments; without ever taking the time to slow my own life down and treasure the miniscule moments, I had unknowingly overlooked most of what Rooney had tried so hard to relay to readers.
Now, sitting bored in my room, there was no better time to relive and relearn these pages. Upon hearing that Hulu was about to premiere their own TV adaptation of the novel, I scavenged my bookshelves to find my hidden, tattered copy so that I could immerse myself in the 200 or so pages in preparation, timing my spontaneous reread such that I finished hours before the show came out. It was the most productive I had felt after nearly a month and a half of being stuck at home as the world struggled with its new normalcy.
I was struggling with adjusting to the new normalcy too. I’ve never been a fan of change—why mix things up if they work? Familiarity is so lovely; familiarity is so easy. The sense of comfort that accompanies lived experiences and interactions feels so safe. The fact that I can look back on past encounters and triumphantly say that I had survived them speaks volumes. The same cannot be said about embarking on a new storyline, which solidifies change as the scarier option in nearly all aspects of life. Is that risk of exposing myself to something new and unfamiliar always worth it? Rationally, I know that the answer is usually yes, and that growth is good for any individual. But internalizing and fully embracing that is not nearly as easy.
So naturally, when faced with a changing world and countless unforeseen circumstances, I was more than happy to lose myself in the world of two characters whom I had once obsessed over, and couldn’t wait to watch them come to life on my own screen.
Rooney brings readers and viewers along for the ride as Marianne and Connell, two young adults from small-town Ireland, tackle the ups and downs that are school, confusing relationships, and the dreaded question of figuring out what one is to do with the rest of their life. Although this may seem like any other coming-of-age plot, my attachment to Normal People and its characters instead emerges from the way Rooney portrays everyday interactions through raw expression and intense emotion.
Through Marianne and Connell’s interactions over several years, Rooney successfully reenacts how heartbreaking misunderstandings can arise from miscommunication. As both characters are intensely protective of their own feelings, the fear of opening up and being vulnerable with each other inevitably results in their own misperceptions of the other’s emotions. This fear of change and not knowing what might accompany these alterations infects their minds, leaving them to take actions that fail to reflect their true feelings. And it is exactly what makes them both so infuriating yet relatable.
Finding parallels of yourself within fictional characters is exhilarating. I have never felt more validated than when I’m nodding along to dialogue that I have quite literally spoken myself. No matter how exasperating it can be to watch Marianne and Connell fail to be on the same page as a result of simple miscommunications, it serves as a reminder that everyone faces these same struggles everyday. It reminds us that whenever we struggle to tell someone the truth, or come to terms with an uncomfortable reality, we’re not the only people to have ever been put in those positions. Even though it can feel like the most isolating setting ever, it just might be one of the most uniting moments among people.
Sometimes I worry that I’m not going to do something transformative with my life. Or even something great. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to grapple less with “How am I supposed to leave my impact on the world?” and more with “Am I even meant to leave an impact on the world?”
Rationally, I know that I’m going to be just fine. I’ll graduate, I’ll find a job, and I’ll have my friends with me every step of the way. Knock on wood. But being able to recognize this and being able to actually internalize it are two completely different actions, and it’s nearly impossible for me to complete the latter. Because who truly knows what will happen? The fearful curiosity lies heavy on my shoulders in the face of the unknowing, yet again.
This is exactly why I find such comfort in characters like those of Rooney’s universes. Reading about individuals who still feel lost in their seemingly perfect lives validates my own worries I have about the future. Digesting mundane yet silly conversations between characters reminds me that no matter how pointless the conversations I carry with others may seem, these are the chats bringing life to my friendships. In Rooney’s characters, I read descriptions of their everyday actions that are nearly identical to the messy text messages between my friends, where we never hesitate to share the most recent thoughts to occupy our brains.
It brings me solace to come across a stream of consciousness passage that reads all too familiarly because my mind runs its course through the same daunting thoughts each night.
We need to embrace normality; it is what makes up our daily interactions and encounters, which all bring meaning to our lives. Even as someone who loves structure, the repetitiveness of waking up at 8 a.m., attending class, swiping in at the dining halls, and parking at my favorite study spot can get to be a little tedious. But there is so much more to my everyday life than these seemingly mundane activities.
When the lovely ERC baristas ring up my coffee order before I can even greet them. When a new friend invites me to grab dinner for the first time together. When I forget to check the dining hall menus beforehand and it turns out that the Ratty is serving falafel. When the dorm washers and dryers are available. When I get to climb into my friends’ beds as they tell me about their own, ordinary days.
Normality is enlightening.
Ordinary is not boring; ordinary is real. Choosing how to perceive our everyday actions is what allows us to derive pleasure and excitement from our day-to-day lives. And the best part is that we get to choose our actions once again the very next day—there is nothing more reassuring than knowing that I get to control my narrative.
As I finish binging the beloved Normal People for the nth time, my body has already melded to my softening twin XL bed. I glance at the photos surrounding myself, and absorb all the moments I’ve captured with my friends, ranging from weekend-long trips to silly selfies taken on the floor. Even the rain has stopped. And I realize that the semester will be just fine.