Sally Rooney published her first novel, Conversations With Friends, back in 2017. We were all much younger then. (Rooney was 26.) As Vulture’s Chief Sally Rooney Content Correspondent — I recapped Normal People — I am very excited to return to the book that designated Rooney as the voice of a generation (or a voice of a … you know). I’ve read it, but I promise no spoilers for those who have not. Time to make fleeting but intense eye contact, think about what we’d say to each other in person if only we could get the words out but instead save all our most meaningful lines for email, and be communists and/or socialists in a theoretical way but also basically not do a whole lot about that in our day-to-day lives!
To begin, we have some intriguing deviations from the source material. The book’s narrator, Frances (Alison Oliver), is as she ever was — pale, brunette, Irish — but Bobbi (Sasha Lane) is now a Black American and a newer addition to Frances’s life. Actually, in the novel, everybody is Irish, and now in the show, only Frances and Nick, who we’ll meet shortly, still are; Melissa, Nick’s wife, is British.
Frances and Bobbi’s friendship goes back to secondary 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 her own. The show has Bobbi arriving in England from New York at about that time. So far, I feel like the show isn’t totally selling us on why exactly these two are still friends post-breakup, given the way Bobbi treats Frances. Though Bobbi reveals some compassion and gentleness toward Frances when they’re alone, whenever they’re in front of other people, Bobbi is happy to use Frances’s inner life as a prop to make Bobbi seem more interesting or daring or whatever; in this first 30 minutes, Bobbi outs Frances as her ex, bisexual, and a communist, much to Frances’s evident discomfort.
This is a recurring source of tension between any adult reader and Rooney’s work, I think; the frustration of literally why are these people not just talking to each other AND why is this person still friends with someone who treats her so badly is harder to stomach when you are a grown-up who has gone to therapy and/or learned from your past relationships and/or no longer tolerates that kind of annoying shit in your life. Maybe Rooney feels the same way revisiting this material now!
Anyhow, Frances is a student and a poet. She and Bobbi perform her work together. We meet Frances as her spring semester is coming to a close. I cannot tell yet if this story is a period piece set in 2017 or if Frances is using wired headphones in a “wired headphones are actually back now” kind of way … if you see any clues to suggest either one, please leave them in the comments. To me, Frances’s jeans look like those Levi’s Ribcage ones, which would be a point in the present-day 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 onstage, performing a piece that I think is supposed to be good? But it’s also got plenty of college-angsty-eye-roll no-duh observations about sexism — “Buckle up, this is the next wave of female empowerment” re: pole dancing as exercise — which, maybe it’s 2017? HELP ME.
A very chic and just-so-older woman is by the bar after the performance, someone Bobbi and Frances immediately clock as “that writer.” Her name is Melissa (she’s played by Jemima Kirke); with her red lipstick and silky top and hair bleached blonde to the roots, she scans as sooo much more sophisticated and mature than Bobbi and Frances. She compliments the girls by 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 don’t anymore. I feel like Bobbi, who is supposed to seem magnetic and effervescent in the book, is coming off as a little aggressively try-hard, 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 moody and handsome shot of her husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn), is featured. This naturally leads to more Googling and scrolling and screenshotting and texting Bobbi have you seen her trophy husband? The text goes through in a green bubble because Frances does not have an iPhone, which COULD mean Frances is a villain. We cannot yet tell if ANYONE has an iPhone. Maybe we are to believe that no one on this show is a Good Person?
Melissa had mentioned that she swims in the sea every day, so the girls meet her there. Then they all head to Melissa and Nick’s house, which is, of course, quite the contrast to Frances’s fine but bland rental. The walls are painted sage green (2022 energy) and deep gray; there’s framed art on the walls, books on the shelves, and fancy-looking light fixtures above. As Melissa and Bobbi disappear to shower (separately) (… for now?!), Nick gets home.
During dinner, Bobbi gushes about their house while also trying to posture as someone who is young but old for her age. “You two are such grown-ups,” she says, and Melissa laments, “I know.” Dinner topics include Bobbi’s culture shock at just how white Ireland turned out to be, Frances’s enjoyment of the “impermanence” of writing spoken-word poetry, and Frances’s communist leanings (Bobbi’s announcement).
Melissa and Bobbi escape for a cigarette so that Nick and Frances can do the Sally Rooney special: awkward conversation between people who hate talking and would prefer to skip to the part where all their communication happens via text. Nick is an actor currently in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Nick gets Frances’s email so he can send her a ticket and, more importantly, so their emotionally inappropriate pen-pal relationship can commence. Do you think these kids have chemistry? I’m not feeling it yet, but again: I hold out hope!
By the next day, Bobbi is already making grand proclamations and cutting insights based on her one (1) interaction with Nick and Melissa as a couple. She thinks it’s weird that they’re married, weird that anyone would be married, and that Melissa is obviously far too interesting to be with someone so apparently dull as Nick. At this point, Bobbi admits that she has a crush on Melissa. Just in case you missed that.
An interesting deviation from the novel here is that the book provides a construct for Melissa to seek out more time with Frances and Bobbi — she wants to profile them for a literary magazine — but the show erases that, instead making the question of who is pursuing whom a little blurrier. Their friendship has no tangible excuse, like reporting or being on deadline; everyone just keeps finding reasons to circle each other and stay close.
We see Frances start her summer job by hating it, aloud and on the spot, even though it seems pretty benign to me; she is reading the slush pile at a literary agency. Then we see her go to the play — alone. No Bobbi! This scene is, I assume, supposed to be the beginning of her more animal attraction to Nick because she’s watching him do all the yelling and snarling and manly drinking and such. Is Nick a convincing Brick? (Hard to follow in those Paul Newman footsteps.)
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 having come, and sends him a text saying he was great. This is one of the many things that will make an adult viewer want to scream a little bit because, oh my GOD, get over yourself, just say hi to him, who cares?! He literally bought you a ticket! Obviously, he replies later on to say she should’ve stayed for a drink, because duh!! He wants to see her next poetry performance, and already they have a little inside joke about how they’re expressing 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 Melissa says that Tennessee Williams is “too mannered,” and when Frances attempts to push back on this (pretentious, douchey) criticism, she is swiftly shut down by her friend, who tells her she is being “annoying.”
That night, Frances winces against a hot-water bottle because she is having period pain from hell. Bobbi stays the night even though Frances tells her she can go home; in the morning, she offers to make some tea. I assume this is a sort of save-the-cat situation to endear us to Bobbi, but the episode has not really set us up to think she’s a very good friend, no? She’s being a dick like 90 percent of the time.
Nick arrives late but makes it in time for most of Bobbi and Frances’s performance of a poem called “Diamonds,” which makes exactly the points about engagement rings that you might expect (capitalist, sexist, bad) and afterward, 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 counters that Brick could be bisexual, to which Bobbi responds by outing Frances. Rude! Also, I feel like our show is doing Frances no favors — she’s supposed to be the more reserved of the pair, but in the book she gets a clever reply in here (“I’m kind of an omnivore”), whereas in the show she is awfully … blank. We do see the beginning of something between her and Nick, who promises that he really liked her performance and that he’s going to “craft you an email. It’ll be full of compliments in complete sentences.” And they won’t even have to make eye contact. Dreamy.