Adulthood stories such as “Normal People” make us rethink ourselves

I seem to have spent much of the lockdown inside the minds of teenagers. Two of the books that I have been able to finish, despite having difficulty concentrating, have been coming-of-age stories about teenage girls, by Annie Ernaux and Elena Ferrante. Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story, published by Fitzcarraldo, fills a lacuna in the French author’s ongoing multiple-memoir project, telling of an early, traumatic sexual experience in 1958 that has taken her six decades to write about. Ferrante’s forthcoming The Lying Life of Adults (Europa Editions) tells of Giovanna, a teenage Neapolitan girl torn between two very different cities as she explores her sexuality and tries to construct an identity for herself.

Our appetite for teenage stories shows no sign of abating. Netflix Italia has just announced plans to turn The Lying Life of Adults into a series, while the small-screen adaptation of Normal People has seen more than 16.2m viewing requests and delivered BBC Three’s best ever week. As a novel, Normal People has been disparaged in some quarters as YA (young adult) fiction with pretensions, but regardless of whether you are a fan or not, its treatment of formative teenage experience and emotions as serious and worthy of attention is meaningful, unusual even. It’s odd that this should feel exceptional, considering how the coming-of-age novel is such an established literary tradition, from Bonjour Tristesse to The Bell Jar to The Catcher in the Rye. Yet somewhere along the way, readers seem to have stopped taking teenagers seriously.

We’ve all been guilty of dismissing our teenage experiences, even being unkind to our teenage selves. The sexual experiences we have in those years are in many ways formative, but many of us write them off as clumsy and fumbling, minimising what they meant to us at the time – which was often everything. Our memories of our youth are potent and remain so throughout our lives. As the young journalist James Marriott wrote recently: “Life touches us more closely when we’re young – it’s like missing a layer of skin. Experiences and feelings are painful and vivid in a way they never will be again as, agonisingly, we become ourselves.”

I think we are mean to our teenage selves because, on some level, we are embarrassed about how deeply we felt things at that age. Adulthood levels us out, makes us cynical, gives us distance from the things that hurt us. As a girl, particularly, you spend your adolescence discovering all the ways in which the world wants to hurt you, that your sexuality is not your own, that others feel a degree of ownership of your body to which they should not be entitled. For too many girls that discovery is painful, even traumatic. Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is another brilliant recent novel that offers vivid insight into what it means to inhabit a teenage body, in this case a black teenage body that is forced to endure the horror of rape.

There is a tendency to distance ourselves from the traumas of youth because we don’t want these traumas to define us as adults. It’s telling that it took Ernaux 60 years to tell the story of that sexual experience and the grey area she feels it occupies. The telling of it now has dovetailed with the #MeToo movement, of which she is supportive, which has seen many women reappraise their teenage years. Ernaux told the New York Times that “had it been a rape, I might have been able to talk about it earlier, but I never thought about it in that way”. Many women are only just finding – or inventing – the language they need to tell their stories.

Watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire recently, which is directed by Céline Sciamma, another great chronicler of teenage femininity, I was struck by a scene in which two young women recreate an abortion, while a third – the artist – draws it (this is in late 18th-century France). It moved me greatly because of what it told the viewer about that which is undocumented. All those centuries of frightened women bleeding and cramping, and not one painting. When it comes to our cultural understanding of femininity, there are still many dark patches where there should be light.

Both Ferrante and Ernaux are of a generation whose understanding of teenage sexuality was shaped by the repressed postwar period in which they came of age. As a reader, I was left with deep feelings of sadness and sympathy for the young women in their books. I felt their struggles so powerfully, and they were so well rendered, that the behaviour of these girls, which could easily be dismissed as “teenage” from the outside, made perfect, logical sense. Of course they felt that way. Perhaps the more we’re exposed to teenage narratives that make such a persuasive case for their place in the arts, and that assert themselves as worthy of serious literary and cinematic inquiry, the more we will start to extend that sympathy to our own teenage selves and remember what it was like to feel everything so fiercely and so deeply.