Hulu’s Conversations with Friends Captures the Quintessential Rooney Longing, if Not Much Else
Nylah Burton on the Newest Addition to the Sally Rooneyverse
Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel, is possibly the Irish author’s best, most emotionally complex work. As far as plot, Rooney’s subsequent novels, Normal People and Beautiful World, Where Are You, pale in comparison to the layers and tension that she achieved with Conversations with Friends. The Hulu adaptation, which premieres on May 15, doesn’t do justice to the novel’s more cerebral musings about imposed monogamy and capitalism, but it does capture that quintessential Rooney longing that defines her work.
The story revolves around 21-year-old Frances (newcomer Alison Oliver), a student at Trinity College Dublin who performs spoken word poetry with her ex-girlfriend and current best friend, Bobbi (American Honey’s Sasha Lane). Also 21, Bobbi has been Frances’ artistic “muse” since secondary school, when they dated for some time before Bobbi—apparently with no explanation—ended it.
When 37-year-old posh, famous British writer Melissa meets Bobbi and Frances at one of their spoken word events, she pulls them into her glamorous, decidedly grown-up life with whom Frances initially calls her “trophy husband.” The trophy in question is 33-year-old Nick, a handsome and quiet actor who immediately becomes drawn to Frances, whose crush on him is all-encompassing. Inevitably, they begin an affair.
If you’re looking for a moralized, cautionary tale against the evils of sleeping with a married person, you won’t find it here. Blessedly, Frances isn’t punished for daring to sleep with an older, “taken” man, but instead gets everything she wants, including both Nick and a rekindling of her old love with Bobbi.
Usually, discussions of Rooney’s work revolve around how she embeds her musings on communism and capitalism within a love story. In the novel, this holds, even though sometimes the sentences can read a bit silly, as 21-year-olds often read. (“To love someone under capitalism, you have to love everyone. Is that theory or theology?” Frances writes in an email in which she’s ostensibly confessing her love for Bobbi.)
But in the series, these musings are fleeting, and honestly for the better. It can feel a bit ham-fisted and forced in Rooney’s work; here, we’re able to focus more clearly on the characters’ emotional lives. The issue is that their emotional lives have everything they need to be interesting, and yet they fall short of seeming interesting on screen.
Where the series does generate interest is over questions about the idea of permanence in relationships. When Melissa asks Frances why she favors writing poetry over prose, Frances says—while also throwing in a veiled barb at Melissa’s success with a comment about books being a “commodity”—that she likes the “impermanence” of spoken word poetry. “I feel a bit sick when I think about it lasting forever,” she adds.
Francis abhors the idea of permanence in literature, yet she also abhors the idea of impermanence in relationships. Much of her angst is over whether she and Nick will last, whether she and Bobbi will remain in their slightly codependent friendship, whether Bobbi will stop loving her, whether Nick will stop sleeping with her and start sleeping with his wife. The idea of anything ending between her and someone she loves tortures her.
And Rooney, it’s clear, makes all her characters terrified of the same thing. Perhaps that is why so many of her leads are obsessed with childhood romances continuing in a loop, always evolving but never ending.
The perfect vehicle for Rooney to explore this fear of relationship impermanence is polyamory, but more specifically, people doing polyamory incredibly messily. When Nick finally tells Melissa about his affair with Frances, they enter an open relationship of sorts, one that seems entirely awkward because no one appears to actually want that, except perhaps Nick, who in the book admits he can be emotionally manipulative towards women by performing helplessness. (His emotional manipulation is barely grazed in Rooney’s novel except for Bobbi’s occasional rants, but she’s painted as such a judgmental character that it’s hard for that to hold weight.)
Instead, everyone appears to be going along with it because that’s what people in these artistic circles, with these politics, just do. You get the sense that they all find it embarrassing and perhaps a bit classless to be “possessive.”
Whether it’s possessive or not to want your spouse to only be with you is a question that Conversations with Friends doesn’t even explore; it presents it to us as absolute truth. Which, considering that we’ve had centuries of imposed monogamy, could be refreshing. But here it just ends up annoying, with Bobbi’s aggressive treatise against monogamy coming off as unnecessary and suffocating.
If Rooney’s characters are called insufferable, it’s because most are the sort of people we all swear we aren’t but have inevitably been at some point, ranting about our opinions during conversations with friends and taking all the air out of the room. Her novels are solipsistic, interrogating these structures and having everyone agree, the only time someone disagrees serving to illuminate the truth of what the other person has said.
What the characters have to say about polyamory is especially ironic given that none of them do polyamory well, with the possible exception of Bobbi and Frances toward the end of the series. It’s painful to watch all four characters try to perform polyamory with mind games and pretentiousness (again, Bobbi less so, but her outlier status also feels weird, as she’s given no life outside of her relationship to Frances).
Clearly, Melissa only “allows” Frances and Nick to sleep together so she can exercise power over Frances, immediately poking at her by revealing that Nick told her intimate details about Frances’ alcoholic father and reignited their sexual relationship after a year of dormancy—a dormancy instigated by Melissa reacting to Nick’s psychiatric hospitalization by sleeping with his best friend. Bobbi calls Frances “stereotypically homophobic” when Frances claims that Bobbi might be jealous of Frances’ crush on Nick, but then has a meltdown when she finds out about the affair. And Nick remains what Melissa calls “pathologically passive” throughout, clearly wanting the safety of his marriage alongside the thrill of his 21-year-old girlfriend.
For all their talk, Rooney’s characters often fail to be emotionally honest with themselves about their romantic needs and desires, almost as if they’re embarrassed of them—as if that kind of desire and longing is surplus to requirements under communism.
Compared to the book, the class analysis in the series is rather weak. We don’t see any contours of Frances’ financial struggle except for her card getting declined because her father forgot her allowance, and when she briefly refers to Bobbi not needing money like she does. Here, Frances’ need is reduced to grubbiness. She has the world ahead of her, but she wants Melissa’s nice house now, her handsome husband now.
While Nick and Frances’ sex scenes are intimate and tender, there doesn’t seem to be too much else linking them. Until they start having conversations about children, it’s hard to pin down why she wants him. Then one realizes that despite his marriage, he represents a sort of stability to her, one she desperately wants.
The question of children is the most interesting one across both the book and the series, as Frances is always thinking of what she has to offer Nick. In the book, she asks Nick if he’d find her unattractive if she were pregnant and he responds that he’d find her even more attractive; they have unprotected sex and she’s aroused by thinking of his “sinister desire to get [her] pregnant.”
Melissa is 37 and doesn’t want children; Bobbi is young and wants them. But when Frances gets a diagnosis of endometriosis and finds out that conceiving may be difficult, she’s devastated, the one thing she thought she could offer Nick suddenly in question. At one point in the show, she tells him that after the diagnosis, she knew “[her] body wasn’t going to feel good to [him] anymore.”If Rooney’s characters are called insufferable, it’s because most are the sort of people we all swear we aren’t but have inevitably been at some point.
Which is why it’s refreshing when Frances admits that permanence is something she’s trying for but doesn’t believe to be possible. The frank emotional truth here—complicated by the book’s focus on Frances’ desire for stability—is that she simply wants Melissa’s life, and that her connection to Nick is perhaps just an extension of that envy. When this is made clear, Frances’ honesty makes her a much more likable character.
Still, the series’ depiction of Frances as covetous and manipulative bothers me. It’s interesting that so many reviewers of the show depict Bobbi and Frances as a force that enters Melissa and Nick’s lives, pushes into their happy home, when the opposite seems true to me. That interpretation gives a bit too much credit to two 21-year-olds’ ability to destroy a wealthy, mature marriage. It also ignores the roping that the couple does at every turn. They invite Bobbi and Frances to swim, to see plays, to stay at their beach house in Croatia, to consult Melissa’s agent, to quote Frances’ work in one of Melissa’s essays. From my standpoint, Nick and Melissa are clearly the ones who sought out these two young women.
It seems a popular view, an alluring one, to give young women more agency in such relationships. We’re not all victims, after all. But the power dynamics are glaring—in the book even more so, since we see Nick buying groceries for Frances and giving her cash when she has no money—so this portrayal of Frances as merely jealous seems a bit unfair.
Class isn’t the only thing the show doesn’t explore well. Writing for The Independent, Nick Hilton describes the Hulu adaptation as “de-Irished.” While both are Irish in the books, Melissa is British and Bobbi is American. Bobbi is also Black, potentially multiracial. All these questions of nationality and race would have been interesting if explored in the show more explicitly, but we just get a passing mention of Bobbi’s initial shock at finding so many white people in Ireland.
There are other more subtle moments that are perhaps more true to life—who wants to call their best friends racist?—like when Frances touches Bobbi’s locs to make Nick jealous and Bobbi gets angry, or when Bobbi explicitly says that Frances has written a “dehumanizing” account of her in a short story, portraying her as a selfish, aggressive, sexual being whose skin Frances would quite literally like to wear.
In her novels, Rooney is a master of longing. Her female protagonists are waify things who love strong silent men, the Husband archetype, and can always be assured of their love interest’s total infatuation, their almost supernatural draw and dedication, even while they remain pleasurably out of reach. But really, their romantic counterparts are always very firmly in their grasp. It’s a low stakes longing. Rooney’s most stereotypically romantic ending was Beautiful World, Where Are You, but she famously left Normal People ambiguous, as she does with Conversations with Friends, the reader not really knowing the shape of the couple’s relationship, only that they will have one.
It makes sense then, that this story is an exploration of polyamory, which Rooney seems to see as an escape from the shackles of expecting permanence, while simultaneously being a conduit to achieving permanence. Her characters are always people who will never truly say goodbye to each other, and in that lies her appeal. We are all so desperately scared of things ending, and yet so desperately scared of admitting that. With a dash of conversation about communism and subverting social norms, the thin, pale limbs of white people’s sex scenes, and a moody Phoebe Bridgers song, Conversations with Friends allows viewers the security they need, while also feeling assured in their own coolness.