Fine-Tuning Your Shelf: Normal People

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There are few pieces of art that have had such a lasting emotional impact on me as Sally Rooney’s Normal People. By no means am I alone in this – while it’s true Rooney has received a considerable amount of criticism over the last few years (some of which I believe is justified, some of which… well, that’s an entirely separate conversation), she has also deservedly amassed a cult following of readers captivated by her thoughtfully sparse prose, complex characters and, above all, her crushingly perceptive rendering of some of the fundamental aspects of the 21st-century young adult experience. Normal People is, at its core, a love story, but it’s also an exploration of class dynamics, the glorified social culture of the university, mental health, and the ways we try and often fail to communicate with one another. 

Rooney has amassed a cult following of readers captivated by her thoughtfully sparse prose.

Besides Rooney, there is a second woman in my life who, despite having no idea I exist, seems to possess an uncanny ability to peer directly into my soul and cast into words all the things I could never articulate myself – of course, I’m talking about Taylor Swift. Arguably a storyteller in her own right, she has a particular interest, like Rooney, in the intensity and complexity of romantic relationships, particularly when you’re young – it’s unsurprising that she personally endorsed Normal People online after she read it. If, therefore, you are thinking about (re)reading Normal People but wish to have your heart ripped out your chest even more forcefully while doing so, here is a playlist of Taylor Swift songs to accompany you that I refuse to believe was not written specifically about Marianne and Connell. 

‘You Are In Love’ 

There is something so warm and tender in both the rhythm and the imagery of this song that perfectly encapsulates all the small, often mundane yet significant moments when Marianne and Connell fall for one another over and over again. ‘One look, darkroom / Meant just for you’ it begins, evoking the flashing lights of a Sligo nightclub in the midst of which two sets of eyes meet and exchange unspoken words over the heads of oblivious classmates. The uniquely magical (and at times painful) feeling of being in love with your best friend that is celebrated here could not be more reflective of the intense connection Marianne and Connell share. And we cannot forget, of course, the reference to Connell’s iconic accessory in the mention of ‘the chain on your neck’.  

‘This Is Me Trying’ 

Arguably one of the saddest and most haunting songs in Swift’s entire discography, this song could have been written by Connell as he desperately struggles to adjust to life at college while also wracked with guilt for the way he hurt Marianne (‘I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back / I have a lot of regrets about that’). Feelings of academic and social inadequacy (‘I’ve been having a hard time adjusting / I had the shiniest wheels now they’re rusting’) are mired with his deep longing to see Marianne again – ‘Maybe I don’t quite know what to say / But I’m here in your doorway’ is an image that just screams Connell Waldron. 

‘Illicit Affairs’

While Marianne and Connell aren’t having an affair as such, it’s impossible to listen to this song without picturing all the ‘clandestine meetings and longing stares’ they shared as they hid their relationship while at school. ‘Make sure nobody sees you leave’ is something Connell definitely would have said to Marianne at some point, while ‘You know damn well / For you I would ruin myself’ has echoes of Marianne’s desire to do anything, even debase herself, to please Connell despite the way he treated her.

‘Delicate’

One of the more upbeat selections for this playlist, the idea of love being an exhilarating yet delicate thing couldn’t be more true for Marianne and Connell’s will-they won’t-they relationship. ‘My reputation’s never been worse / So you must like me for me’ feels reminiscent of Marianne as she comes to realise Connell’s intentions are genuine in sleeping with her, the ‘weird’ girl, when there are ‘much prettier girls in school’. There’s definitely also a sensual vibe laced within this song that compliments the many beautifully-shot sex scenes in the Normal People show. 

‘’Tis the Damn Season’ 

This nostalgic gut-punch of a song about reconnecting with a past lover is so perfectly evocative of the way Marianne and Connell come back to one another over the years, like slipping back into an old cardigan (see what I did there) on a cold day. References to ‘the school that used to be ours’ and ‘staying at my parent’s house’ encapsulate those moments when they return from college in the Christmas holidays and inevitably find their way back to each other in a messy unravelling of emotion and familiarity. Both Swift and Rooney make the idea of soulmates pretty convincing; Marianne and Connell understand one another in a way they don’t experience with anyone else (‘the only soul who can tell which smiles I’m faking’) and it’s difficult not to believe that whatever roads they choose will always lead them back to each other eventually.

Image: Kevin Morris via Creative Commons

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