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Sally Rooney’s Normal People, a sharply observed novel of young love set in Ireland that follows the on-off relationship between Connell and Marianne through their last year of school and into university in Dublin, is turning in impressive sales figures in the UK on the back of the critically acclaimed BBC TV drama.
Published by Faber the book took the number one slot on the Nielsen bestseller chart earlier this month, thanks to the thousands of people who are discovering the novel for the first time because of the TV series.
But something else is happening with this work too, something that sets it apart from other literary novels. The book’s adaptation for television has led to the most extraordinary response on social media. From Tik Tok to twitter, people are obsessed with the series. Or, to put it more accurately, young women adore the series. In particular, they adore the male lead in the drama – unknown Irish actor Paul Mescal – and have been swept away by the romance of the story. And here the word ‘romance’ is used broadly; some parts of the media have dubbed the series ‘50 Shades of Sligo’, that being the part of Ireland where much of the drama was filmed. There are many scenes of bedroom intimacy that might prevent the drama being broadcast in some countries.
There are also some unusual firsts that should be noted. How many (any?) modern, fictional characters have ever had their own Hotmail account? Has any modern fictional character’s single item of jewellery ever boasted its own Instagram account? Connell Waldron and his thin neck chain have both.
When viewer Travis Smith saw Connell’s email address in episode six he sent him a note offering sympathy and advice over Marianne – and he got a reply. ‘Thanks for your email mate,’ Connell wrote. ‘I feel like I keep making the same mistake over and over, but I don’t trust myself not to hurt her again and I don’t feel in control of my emotions’.
Neither Hulu, which broadcasts the show in the US, nor the BBC, which made the show with Irish broadcaster RTÉ, say they have any connection with the account, which means it is either someone in Faber marketing (Cool job! “What do you do at work?” “Oh I pretend to be the hot guy from Normal People”)¸ or Rooney herself, or Mescal or someone who just happens to be called Connell Waldron.
It is a fascinating situation to watch – the meeting of popular culture with literary culture. The posts are frequently very funny. There is even one from health and beauty brand GHD which asks, against a picture of Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne): “If I get a fringe after lockdown will I also get a Connell? Asking for a friend.”
Meanwhile, another fan set up an Instragram account for Connell’s neck chain at @connellschain that now has more than 30,000 followers. The publisher could even go down the whole merchandize route.
People are clamouring for a sequel which might well solve Rooney’s problem of what to do next. She has already conquered the difficult ‘second single’ question. Normal People is her second novel and its success has boosted sales of her first Conversations with Friends which has also been filmed.
The real person to thank for all the excitement is literary agent Tracy Bohan at the Wylie Agency in London. Back in 2015 , she read a non-fiction essay by Rooney and got in touch. The rest is bestselling history. Rooney has now been sold in 46 territories, including Arabic – and it seems that hers is a name we will hear much from.
But one worry remains: will the lure of writing straight for screen prove too tempting for Rooney? In 1996 Alex Garland erupted on to the literary scene with The Beach, famously filmed with Leonard DiCaprio in 2000. A follow-up novel made little impression and then Garland started writing screenplays, among the latest of which is Ex Machina, released in 2014, which he also directed. There have been no more novels. It would be a blow to booksellers if Rooney’s career took the same arc.