Conversations with friends about Conversations with friends
By Annie Dabb
*Warning* this contains spoilers so if you haven’t watched the show yet…well actually that’s your own fault. Where the heck have you been?! How could you think of anything else at 00:00am on the 13th May?!
Over the last couple of weeks, (or since the 13th May to be precise, the release date of the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel ‘Conversations with Friends’,) I have been bombarded with TikToks meme-ing the show. I say ‘bombarded’ I mean a few of my friends have maybe sent me 1 a day, but let me tell you it has felt like a TikTok invasion on my otherwise happily TikTok less psyche.
Admittedly I fear I may have brought this upon myself by mentioning Sally Rooney every two seconds. Nevertheless, my obsession with the young Irish writer, otherwise known as the ‘Austen of the precariat’ (I mean come ON, what’s not to love?!) rages on. So much so that this is perhaps the closest I’ve come to downloading the damned app, tempted by the possibility of seeking out more Rooney related content for myself.
I can even get over the Phoebe Bridgers TikToks, who has not one but two songs on the show’s soundtrack. Now this is one too many if you ask me. That being said, for all that I begrudge Bridgers’ what I consider frankly too-depressing-for-already-mentally-f*cked-GenZ-kids music, even I have to admit that it fits the show’s domestic tragedy genre.
Other artists enhancing the show’s soundtrack include CMAT, who’s album ‘If My Wife New I’d Be Dead’ is filled with sad-girl (or sad-person, if you prefer) bangers. Artists Mitski and Girl in Red also feature. I mean really, if you thought you were in for a feel-good watch, I think the sound-track alone tells you all that you need to know.
But this is of course what Sally Rooney throughout all of her novels (and the TV adaptation of ‘Normal People’) does so well. As a millennial writer herself, whether she wants to or not she makes our over-dramatic generation feel represented by creating characters who feel the same things we do. They fall in love with people they shouldn’t. They fight with their friends. And of course, they feel like the whole world revolves around them. Until they write a story about their best friend without their permission and are called out on their narcissism. It was a reality check that felt more like a personal attack by episode 10, after having pretty much binge-watched the previous episodes over two days. Nevertheless, I appreciated it in the long run. It’s as if Sally Rooney said,
I hear you
only to say,
It’s not all about you! See the bigger picture!
all in the space of 12 30 minute episodes and with absolutely no speech marks in sight.
Combine this with the overt socialist-marxist references which have become a bit of a Rooney trade-mark (or trade-Marx, if you will) and the arguments her characters engage in about everything from feminism to polyamory, and the concept of ‘spontaneous consent’, firmly situate this show as a politically-aware romance. If not a little heavy on the dramatic silences for the build up of sexual tension.
Which brings me back to the aforementioned TikToks. If I see one more meme about how Nick (played by Joe Alwyn) rarely strings together more than 5 consecutive words, I will be forced to passive-aggressively rewatch the entire series just to prove these philistines wrong. And on a totally unrelated note, I am contactable through most social media platforms…
Because the thing is, I normally hate rom-coms (of which I have of course seen many, short of romanticising my own life as if I was a character in an Austen novel) when the love interests don’t speak. I hate awkward silences in real life. I think it’s really difficult to sit in silence with someone without feeling the urge to reveal every minute by painful minute of your day up until that point to whichever poor unsuspecting person has found themselves trapped with you.
Before you know it I’ve told you what I had for breakfast, what I’m having for tea, and probably my evening plans for the next six months. Not that you asked, and not that they are ever that interesting. It is usually about this point that I want the ground to swallow me up, but oh, even that sense of absolute dread never seems to stop me. Anyway, I digress.
My point is, to see what to me is an indescribably awkward silence reflected on screen between people who are supposed to be intimate never feels romantic. Instead it usually just feels, well..awkward. But then I watched ‘Conversations with Friends’.
Only Sally Rooney could write characters who say little more than 10 words between them before one of them suggests going ‘upstairs’ in what is clearly a suggestion to sleep together, and make it seem organic and natural. But also most importantly, passionate!
As someone who had also read the book before watching the series (obvs), I was interested to see how they would transfer Frances’ (played by Alison Oliver) first person perspective to encompass the visible emotions of a whole cast. I was certainly not disappointed. Whilst Nick may not say much in person (apart from when he reveals to Frances his own depressive episode in the previous year), the small smirks he offers by way of appreciation for Frances’ dry humour, or the rye, clandestine smiles he casts in her direction when no one else is looking, made me feel like I was the one having an extra-marital affair with the man. Now normally I’d be against that sort of thing…but you’d have to be blind not to see what Tay Tay, his romantic partner in real life, sees in him.
That being said, undoubtedly the best sex-scenes (the other thing Rooney is known for being great at writing) are not between Nick and Frances. Although their choreography is stunning. Rather, they are between Frances and Bobbi (played by Sasha Lane). Their intimacy actually brought tears to my eyes after Nick had confirmed what we of course all knew already… that men are trash.
Except of course, Rooney forces us to do a double take on this misandrist attitude, evoked undoubtedly by our own experiences with useless (hopefully ex) boyfriends, male friends, brothers, fathers, and anyone else who may fit into that category. Before watching the show and having my outlook on life irrevocably altered forever (not to be dramatic about it), I wasn’t even sure I was going to watch it. So vehement was my hatred for literally every. single. main. character. in the book. But then Rooney did what she always does, which is to remind us that nobody is perfect.
Everyone does bad things and hurt the people they love sometimes (whether inadvertently or on purpose), but that doesn’t mean that they’re all bad. Nor that they completely forfeit our empathy, as we never know whether we might find ourselves in similar situations one day. From a moralist perspective, sure this is maybe a bit iffy. But to quote Lord Byron, ‘is it not life, is it not the thing!’
If the depiction of an extra-marital affair between a 20-something undergrad student and a 30-something depressed actor isn’t your sort of thing, (and fair enough to be honest), I would argue that the show is worth watching for the incredible acting and the colour palette alone. The cinematography also makes it a gorgeous watch, either by yourself or ‘with friends’ (hehe). Don’t get me wrong, I loved ‘Normal People’, but why is the camera always so close! Let Marianne and Connell have their moments of intimacy, they don’t need an audience.
Whereas the silences in ‘Conversations with Friends’ almost seemed to add to the inaccessibility of Frances’ introspection. Sure, if I was Bobbi I’d probably be a bit miffed at having to make all of the effort to converse all of the bloody time. Then again, Bobbi could definitely learn a thing or two about keeping her mouth shut at various points throughout the series.
In particular, Melissa’s (played by Jemima Kirke) compassionate reaction when Frances has the audacity to ring to complain about Melissa telling Bobbi about France’s short story ‘The Dance’, while she’s sleeping with Melissa’s husband, was startling. In Melissa’s position, I can confidently say I would have just lamped the sl*t. (jokes, obvs).
To those who say they were disappointed with the TV adaptation, I say they are fools and they completely miss the point. They are probably the same people disappointed by her latest novel ‘Beautiful World Where Are You’, which is objectively another masterpiece. Rooney’s fiction is supposed to be satisfyingly unsatisfying, that’s what she does!
If growing up and having to do relatively ‘adult’ things has taught me nothing else, it is that life is filled with bitter disappointments. Wrong person, wrong time? Check. Choosing between paying rent and being able to afford the coach home (I see you living your life of mediocre luxury on those frequent train journeys between Dublin and County Mayo, Frances). Check. Even down to passing out from excruciating period pain. Show me someone who doesn’t at least know someone who’s been there. Uteruses are a f*cking nightmare, let me tell you.
Sure the series may not contain as many different locations as ‘Normal People’, (although they do go to Croatia for Christ’s sake), and yeah it would have been great if Nick and Melissa had (consistent) Irish accents. However, to compare ‘Conversations with Friends’ to ‘Normal People’, a show that was released during lockdown when we had literally nothing else to do, just seems kind of unfair. I personally think it’s better (not to hate on Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, also phenomenal actors firmly ensconed in the Rooney cult) in the way that you feel simultaneously emotionally represented by the show’s characters and at the same time like an intruder on their intimate relationships with themselves and with other people. It was both heartbreaking and bitterly humorous, exactly how an honest conversation with friends should be.
All episodes of ‘Conversations with Friends’ are available now on BBC Iplayer.