Amina Awartani investigates the ambivalent reaction to Sally Rooney and Lenny Abrahamson’s second collaboration: Conversations With Friends.
Picture this. The year is 2020, the world has made peace with the fact that the pandemic will last longer than just two weeks, and TikTok dances and banana bread recipes are all the rage. The lockdown feels like an intense, scary time, but many have found solace in the comfort of the arts, especially with movies and TV shows. One such show being Normal People, which first appeared on screen in April 2020, and quickly became a young-adult classic.
The hit Sally Rooney novel, which was the first of her novels to be adapted for the small screen, follows the story of sporty jock Connell and shy bookish Marianne, two Leaving Cert students from County Sligo, who begin an uncertain romance while transitioning into adulthood. On paper, their story has all the elements to make a hit young adult show by tackling themes such as young romance, mental health, trauma, and class conflict.
The backdrop of the first few episodes of the show are set in Carricklea which is shown to influence many of the characters' behaviours towards each other and toward themselves. For example, episode seven reveals that Rob (Connell’s childhood friend) sees no way to make a better life for himself without leaving Carricklea. Oppositely, Connell has effectively “made it” by his town’s standards but remains unhappy. The viewer is present during intimate moments between two characters who are growing up, making mistakes and failing to learn from them - thus repeating a cycle of well-intentioned human mistakes.
After such a success, it was decided that Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends - written & published before Normal People - would also be adapted for the small screen. With the new show set to have some episodes with the same director, Lenny Abrahamson along with His Dark Materials director Leanne Welham, fans of Rooney and the show were excited for its upcoming release.
Fast forward to May 15, 2022 when the last episode of Conversations With Friends was aired. As of now, the show has a rating of 6.7/10 on IMDB and 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while these are commendable numbers, they remain modest compared to the 91% Rotten Tomatoes rating for Normal People (or its 8.4/10 on IMDB). Several elements could explain this.
Firstly, as a novel, Conversations With Friends, while being Rooney’s first novel published, was not her most successful. The success of Normal People as a show directly correlated to its reputation as a must-read for twenty-somethings. Secondly, the main plot is set in a distinctly collegiate environment which undoubtedly made it more relatable to the young adults watching. In fact, The Irish Times reported that the number of applications for Trinity College Dublin rose above ten per cent after the release of the show.
However, audiences' reactions to Conversations With Friends imply that its younger sibling received more praise because it was simply better.
Before such a judgement is made, it is important to understand what Conversations With Friends is about and what it is trying to tell us.
Episode one introduces the audience to best friends - and former lovers - Frances and Bobbi, in their final year at Trinity College Dublin. They occasionally perform spoken word pieces written by Frances. One night, they meet successful author Melissa, who, after having been charmed by their performance, invites them to her house and introduces them to her husband, Nick. What begins as an awkward meeting between timid and shy Frances and equally quiet Nick, blooms into a passionate affair as the series creates a complicated web of relationships with Frances at the centre. We see her balance an affair with Nick, attempting to salvage her floundering relationship with Bobbi, her alcoholic and neglectful father, her cold and distant mother, all while feeding into her begrudging admiration for Melissa as a writer and as a woman.
It is easy to see the similarities between lead couple Frances and Nick and Normal People's Marianne and Connell. Both leading ladies are shy, bookish, brown-haired and opinionated with a timid yet all-consuming approach to love. Both leading men are similarly shy, slightly insecure men, who find great difficulty in communication. The show also takes on a similar directorial approach to Normal People, focusing on close-up intimate shots and quiet realistic scenes of the characters moving, typing, eating, etc.
However, the similarities end here as Conversations With Friends develops into a tale of connection going beyond love between two people. Faithful to her tradition, Rooney continues to create characters who are flawed because they are so deeply human. Her characters are always making mistakes that unintentionally hurt others, but Rooney’s eye is never judgmental and she never reduces them to one-dimensional “bad people”. For example, in several scenes Frances' character is unsure of what she believes in, and is driven purely by loving emotion towards Nick, who seems incapable of choosing between his wife, Melissa, and Frances, both of whom he loves.
The story attempts to draw human characters who are at the mercy of their desires. Desire for love, intimacy, belonging, career success, and friendship, are all themes recurrent in the show. It should also be acknowledged how well Conversations With Friends presents a nuanced approach to a complicated sapphic relationship without reducing its characters to sexualized stereotypes.
So is Normal People better?
It would be an insult to Rooney’s talent to compare two of her best works. Perhaps Normal People does one thing better than Conversations With Friends. It appears it was an easier story to tell because it centred two characters' points of view which made the story easier to follow and attach to because as audiences, we are used to romance tropes. However, Conversations With Friends offers us Frances' point of view and weaves a complex web between characters which can at times be overwhelming.
To compare these two Rooney stories to each other is to do a disservice to both the stories and the characters. While Normal People is a gorgeous coming-of-age romance between two people who learn to love each despite the physical and social distance between them, part of its popularity could be attributed to its insertion into the wider narrative of the hetero-normative young-love story. On the other hand, Conversations With Friends presents a controversial though innovative version of love and romance through it’s casual depiction of bisexuality and polyamory. With confused adults unsure of their life choices, complex parent-child relationships, Conversations With Friends is also a beautiful coming-of-age story in its own right.