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Book Review: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

I first came across Irish writer Sally Rooney through her second novel Normal People. It was a big hit on all the Amazon book lists when it was first released in 2018. I downloaded a sample to see if it would appeal to me but it didn’t have enough pull to draw me in. I never read it but I did watch and enjoy the show adapted from the book in 2020. As did many other people. Given the show’s success, her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was also adapted for TV. It dropped on Hulu just over two weeks ago. I didn’t watch the trailer or even read reviews of the book as I would ordinarily do. It was from the author of Normal People – it was bound to be good.

Frances, the lead female protagonist, and her friend Bobbi meet a semi-famous writer at an open mic bar after performing a poetry set. Both in college, Frances studies English while Bobbi studies History. Naturally, they’re excited to meet Melissa, who at thirty seven years old appears to them as a well put together adult and accomplished writer. They proceed to fan girl over her a bit which leads to a friendship among them. Enter Nick Conway, Melissa’s husband, who quickly turns into Frances’s love interest. The two presumably bond over their shared social awkwardness and an affair ensues. Their relationship unfolds over the course of the next twelve episodes.

Only after I had binged it did I go online to read reviews of the show. Fans complained that much of what was in the book did not translate well onto the screen. Critics expressed varying opinions about the performances of the actors and the director’s decisions. The general consensus was that it wasn’t good. Some even called it an epic fail but I wouldn’t go as far as all that. I was glad I hadn’t read them before I watched it. They might’ve discouraged me from watching a watchable show.

It had its moments. I think the subject matter – a tempestuous affair – was navigated with more depth than usual. The tone never came off as preachy. There wasn’t a sense that your thinking was being steered in a certain direction. It just felt like watching a group of messy and vulnerable people making mistakes in pursuit of love and happiness and then trying to survive the aftermath.

There was some cringy dialogue and maybe a few too many montages of the characters in transit for 26-minute episodes. On occasion, the show lunged into intense scenes that it hadn’t earned on the screen. It rushed certain crucial parts of the narrative, leaving the audience to assume things rather than build up to them. That usually alienates the audience and leaves them struggling to keep up with the characters’ motivations. The book fan army was so adamant about the book’s superiority that I had the sudden urge to read it and see for myself. With the benefit of already having a visual of the characters, I read it in three days easy.

Given that it is a love triangle plot, there is the danger of leaning on tired stereotypes and tropes. The book comes precariously close to this but in the same breath turns them on their heads. The screenplay seemed to have sidestepped this danger well enough but there are details they left out that could’ve made the series richer. All in all it’s a mixed verdict on this one. With an adjusted structure and a sharp rewrite of certain bits, the show emerges as a punchier version of the story. At least that’s what I think.

What have you been watching/reading?

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