SOrry, but your weekend binge-watching plans are dead. conversations with friends is a letdown. Light a candle, let your bangs grow, buy some novels about intelligent women who are sad. The dream is over.
“Slow, solipsistic and smug,” says Nick Hilton. LatestPageNews‘s chief TV critic described the show in his two-star review. “It’s a TV designed for watching out of the corner of your eye while scrolling through Instagram and staring at strangers on two screens at once.”
But… how can that be? All cool people know it conversations with friends is Sally Rooney’s finest novel. Plus, it was made by the team behind the tastefully horny adaptation of normal people, a lockdown smash that starred Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. But this time around, it doesn’t look like the passionate dedication that made Rooney an instant literary star will carry over to the show. Contrary to her writing, which glides along like a swan, the show feels uncertain, perhaps due to weak chemistry between the leads and some major casting misfires. Nick, played by Joe Alwyn, is described in the novel as someone who “looked like he could comfortably pick up Melissa under one arm and fend off intruders with the other”. Here he looks like a nervous man in a hostage situation.
But the signs that Rooney’s debut would be difficult to translate to screen were there all along; They can’t simply be blamed on Joe Alwyn’s accent, which appears to be derived from Harold Bishop Neighbors. From where normal people was a love story that crackled on TV, made visually appealing by longing looks, shy smiles and, yes, all those elaborate sex scenes, conversations with friends is really a novel of intense inwardness. That means we feel locked out on screen. What made the characters on the site relatable now makes them look smug.
It is rumored to be the story of how Frances and Bobbi, best friends, part-time spoken word poets and former lovers, insinuate themselves into the lives of Nick and Melissa, an elderly couple. But the real story here is about a young woman trying to test her idea of herself as a person. Frances, our 21-year-old storyteller, is always trying to cross the line between who she is now and who she wants to be.
We first meet her in a cab en route to Melissa’s house with Bobbi, where she’s “already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make me charming.” Later, after kissing Nick for the first time, she looks at Melissa and thinks she hates her: “I didn’t even know if I really hated her, but the words felt and sounded right.” The novel ends, as is well known, with her realization that “one lives through certain things before one understands them. You can’t always take the analytical position.”
This sense of immediacy of being inside Frances’ head is reinforced by the conversations, which take place via text. Rooney was the first novelist to really nail the way millennials talk to each other online, and that’s still one of the things I love most about her writing (yes, even those long e- mail exchanges in beautiful world, where are you). She understands how talking in a digital world can be like endlessly whispering in your friend’s ear. Online, you discuss life and death on the way to the bus, you can change the subject without detours and admit difficult things without having to look anyone in the eye. Everything is either amazing or terrible.
Take my WhatsApp chat with my friend Sophie from the novel’s initial publication in 2017. Without saying hello, I texted her: “You must read this book I’m reading right now. I’m obsessed with it, I just want to read it all the time.” When Sophie asked who it was by and I told her it was an Irish writer named Sally Rooney who was born in 1991, her response was, “F* ** off 1991. That’s when I was born. Let me die.”
When Frances and Bobbi talk online, they can think about it – in a chat they debate whether love is capitalistic. When Frances sends a message to Nick, she’s often testing how to be brave, but is rarely vulnerable. Depending on who she is talking to, the messages serve different roles in her quest to find out who she is. Of course, this doesn’t work on screen. We have to reach forward to feel locked in; we lose a layer of intimacy.
Last year the online literary magazine LitHub published an article suggesting that Rooney’s prose had spawned a new literary style. “The literature of the voice is dying. The pose literature has arrived,” wrote Stephen Marche. He suggested that Rooney is “the definitive author of the pose,” a style of writing so neat and concise as to be almost anonymous: “You never lose yourself in writing. Rather, one admires the precision of the undertaking from a distance.”
It’s hard to dispute that Rooney’s style had an almost overwhelming influence. But watch conversations with friends Failure on screen made me think only of my first encounter with her writing and how her voice was so excitingly distinctive. The fact that it flopped on screen makes one thing clear: the book has a voice, but the TV show is just a pose.