Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan live in Carricklea, a rural village just west of Sligo, in Ireland. Marianne’s father died when she was thirteen. Connell’s mother, Lorraine, dropped out of school to have Connell, and only she knows who the father was. One afternoon, Connell arrives at Marianne’s home, where Lorraine cleans twice a week. As is their usual routine, Connell has come to give his mother a ride home, because she does not drive.
While Lorraine steps away to unload the clothes dryer, Marianne makes conversation with Connell in the kitchen. She is the smartest girl in school, but the way she dresses and her obvious contempt for other people have made her a social outcast. Connell is also smart, but he is quiet, often self-conscious, and inarticulate in conversation. He does not like how the economics teacher, Miss Neary, flirts with him, but Connell is unsure whether this means he is not attracted to her. His sexual experiences, mostly unpleasant, have left him confused about what sexual attraction is supposed to be like. Connell is embarrassed by the school rumor that he has feelings for Miss Neary.
If Connell has feelings for anyone, it is Marianne. At school, they pretend to be strangers, mainly because it would be embarrassing for him to be associated with the socially-outcast Marianne. In private, however, she teases Connell with suggestive comments. Being around Marianne makes him nervous and awkward. Connell says things he would not say to anyone else, because he knows she would never repeat them. In the kitchen, Marianne tells Connell she likes him. Lorraine returns before Connell can find words to answer and then has to prompt Connell to say goodbye.
The opening chapter of Normal People introduces one of the novel’s prominent themes: the intertwining of identity and social status. The early scenes in this chapter establish that both Connell and Marianne are intelligent and are perhaps the two smartest students in their class. That they recognize and complement the other’s intelligence indicates a mutual respect. However, their awkward conversation in the beginning of the chapter illustrates that they do not know each other well and do not socialize often. Connell’s desire to avoid Marianne in public suggests that his identity is not truly tied to his intelligence, and it indicates that his life is dictated by the opinions of his popular peers. Connell’s apparent easygoing nature is a mask for his own insecurities, and he struggles with intimacy issues and fears of feeling exposed. Though Connell is outwardly viewed as an open book and therefore pleasant to be around, Marianne’s closed-off nature prompts cruelty from and hatred by her peers. She is an outcast because she is unwilling to follow social norms and is therefore branded as mentally ill. Marianne unapologetically owns her intelligence and finds humor in Connell’s predicament, though she also serves as a safe space for him to share his unedited thoughts without upsetting the balance of his public social life. Neither Connell nor Marianne is willing to change who they are, and they both understand their roles in the small world of their secondary school.