Sally Rooney has published her first novel, Conversations with friends, in 2017. We were all much younger then. (Rooney was 26.) As Vulture’s Senior Content Correspondent, Sally Rooney – I recap normal people — I’m very excited to return to the book that singled out Rooney as the voice of a generation (or a voice of a … You know). I read it, but I promise not to spoil those who haven’t. It’s time to make fleeting but intense eye contact, to think about what we’d say to each other in person if only we could get the words across, but instead, let’s save all our most meaningful lines for emails, and be communists and/or socialists in a theoretical context. way but also basically not doing much about it in our day to day life!
For starters, we have some intriguing departures from the source material. The book’s narrator, Frances (Alison Oliver), is as she always was – pale, dark-haired, Irish – but Bobbi (Sasha Lane) is now a black American and a new addition to Frances’ life. In fact, in the novel, Everyone is Irish, and now on the show, only Frances and Nick, who we’ll meet shortly, are still; Melissa, Nick’s wife, is British.
Frances and Bobbi’s friendship dates back to high school, where the “radiantly attractive” Bobbi, who had a penchant for performative acts of progressivism (piercing her nose, writing “fuck the patriarchy” on the school wall) was the show-off whose relationship with Frances brought Frances out of her shell and into hers. The show has Bobbi arriving in England from New York around this time. So far, I feel like the show hasn’t fully told us why these two are still friends after the breakup, given the way Bobbi treats Frances. Although Bobbi reveals a certain compassion and gentleness towards Frances when they are alone, whenever they are in front of other people, Bobbi is happy to use Frances’ inner life as a prop to make Bobbi more interesting or daring or other; in those first thirty minutes, Bobbi introduces Frances as her ex, bisexual and communist, much to Frances’ obvious discomfort.
It’s a recurring source of tension between any adult reader and Rooney’s work, I think; the frustration of literally why don’t these people just talk to each other AND why is this person still friends with someone who treats them so badly is harder to digest when you are an adult who has gone through therapy and/or learned from your past relationships and/or no longer tolerates this kind of annoying bullshit in your life. Maybe Rooney feels the same way revisiting this material now!
Anyway, Frances is a student and a poet. She and Bobbi perform her work together. We meet Frances as her spring semester comes to an end. I can’t tell yet if this story is a period piece set in 2017 or if Frances uses wired headphones in a “wired headphones are actually back now” genre… if you see any clues for suggest either, please leave them in the comments. To me, Frances’ jeans look like Levi’s ribcage, which would be a point in the current column.
Bobbi and Frances have the easy intimacy of people who are used to falling asleep on each other’s couches and in each other’s arms. Then we see them on stage, performing a song that I think is supposed to be good? But there are also plenty of angst-ridden comments in college about sexism — “Buckle up, this is the next wave of female empowerment” regarding pole dancing as an exercise — which, perhaps, is 2017? HELP ME.
A very classy and so much older woman is at the bar after the performance, someone Bobbi and Frances immediately call “that writer.” Her name is Melissa (she is played by Jemima Kirke); With her red lipstick and silky top and bleached blonde hair to the roots, she scans like such much more sophisticated and mature than Bobbi and Frances. She compliments the girls, calling their performance “sweet but ruthless”. Bobbi does the introductions: Frances is the “writer” and she, Bobbi, is the “muse”. She also blurts out that she and Frances used to have sex but now don’t. I feel like Bobbi, who is supposed to seem magnetic and effervescent in the book, comes across as a bit aggressive, but Melissa is charmed. She and Bobbi talk like Frances isn’t even there.
That night, Frances finds a magazine profile of Melissa in which a brooding, handsome snap of her husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn), is featured. This naturally leads to more Googling, scrolling, screenshotting and texting Bobbi have you seen her trophy husband? The text goes into a green bubble because Frances doesn’t have an iPhone, which COULD mean Frances is a villain. We can’t say yet if ANYBODY owns an iPhone. Maybe we should believe that no one on this show is a good person?
Melissa had mentioned that she swam in the sea every day, so the girls met her there. Then they all head to Melissa and Nick’s house, which of course contrasts with Frances’ polished but bland rental. The walls are painted sage green (2022 energy) and dark gray; there are framed artwork on the walls, books on the shelves, and fancy light fixtures above. As Melissa and Bobbi disappear to shower (separately) (…for now?!), Nick comes home.
During dinner, Bobbi springs from their house while trying to pass herself off as someone young but old for her age. “You’re both adults,” she says, and Melissa laments, “I to know.” Dinner topics include Bobbi’s culture shock over the whiteness of Ireland, Frances’ enjoyment of the “impermanence” of writing spoken word poetry, and Frances’ communist leanings (Bobbi’s announcement).
Melissa and Bobbi escape for a cigarette so Nick and Frances can do the Sally Rooney special: an awkward conversation between people who hate talking and would rather skip the part where all of their communication is through text. Nick is an actor currently in Cat on a hot tin roof. Nick receives Frances’ email so he can send her a ticket and, more importantly, their emotionally inappropriate pen pal relationship can begin. Do you think these kids have chemistry? I don’t feel it yet, but once again: I keep hope!
The next day, Bobbi is already making big proclamations and cut ideas based on her (1) interaction with Nick and Melissa as a couple. She thinks it’s weird that they’re married, weird that anyone is married, and that Melissa is obviously far too interesting to be with someone as boring as Nick. At this point, Bobbi admits she has a crush on Melissa. Just in case you missed it.
An interesting deviation from the novel here is that the book provides a construct for Melissa to seek more time with Frances and Bobbi – she wants to profile them for a literary magazine – but the show brushes that off, instead wondering who’s suing who a little more blurry. Their friendship has no tangible excuse, such as a report or meeting deadlines; everyone continues to find reasons to surround themselves and stay close.
We see Frances start her summer job hating it, out loud and on the spot, even though it seems pretty benign to me; she reads porridge in a literary agency. Then we see her going to the show—alone. No Bobby! This scene is, I guess, meant to be the start of her more animalistic attraction to Nick because she watches him do all the screaming and growling and manly drinking and such. Is Nick a convincing Brick? (Hard to follow in the footsteps of Paul Newman.)
She waits for him after the show but sees him land in the arms of a group of friends, so she quickly disappears, probably feeling stupid for coming, and texts him saying he was great. It’s one of the many things that will make a grown-up viewer want to scream a little because, oh my God, take it back, just say hello, who cares?! He literally bought you a ticket! Of course, he replies later to say she should have stayed for a drink, because duh!! He wants to see her next poetry show, and they already have a little joke about how they express interest in each other’s work, but really, they’re just “being polite.”
All Bobbi wants to know about the play is if Melissa was there because lemon balm says that Tennessee Williams is “too mannered”, and when Frances tries to brush off this criticism (pretentious, douchey), she is quickly shut down by her friend who tells her she is “boring”.
That night, Frances winces against a hot water bottle because she has periods from hell. Bobbi stays the night even though Frances tells her she can go home. in the morning, she offers to make tea. I guess it’s kind of a rescue-the-cat situation to get us to like Bobbi, but the episode didn’t really make us think she’s a really good friend, did it? She’s a bitch like 90% of the time.
Nick arrives late but makes it in time for most of Bobbi and Frances’ performance of a poem called “Diamonds”, which makes exactly the points about the engagement rings you might expect (capitalist, sexist, bad) and then Melissa tells them it’s brilliant. Bobbi wants to know if Nick feels ‘conflicted’ about playing a gay character in Cat on a hot tin roof, and Nick retorts that Brick might be bisexual, to which Bobbi responds by taking Frances out. Rude! Also, I feel like our show is doing Frances a disservice – she’s supposed to be the more reserved of the pair, but in the book she gets a clever response here (“I’m kind of an omnivore “), while in the show that she is terribly… a virgin. We see the start of something between her and Nick, who promises that he really liked her performance and will “write you an email”. It will be full of compliments in full sentences. And they won’t even need to make eye contact. Dreamer.