“I don’t really know what I’m doing at the moment,” says Frances (Alison Oliver), a 21-year-old college student in the new Hulu series, Conversations with Friends. The woman she admits this to, Melissa (Jemima Kirke), is a writer in her 30s whose career as an essayist Frances envies, along with her Dublin townhouse, complete with handsome bohemian bourgeois furnishings and book-lined study. Melissa’s aplomb, her place in the world, her substance, seem unattainable to Frances, a poet who performs in the local spoken-word scene with her best friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane), and who pretends to find publishing a shade distasteful. But something else of Melissa’s—her husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn)—is very attainable indeed.
An adaptation of Sally Rooney’s reputation-making 2017 debut novel, Conversations with Friends hews close to its source material, yet shifts it to suggest a different meaning. Director Lenny Abrahamson and co-writer Alice Birch—the creative team behind 2020’s acclaimed Hulu adaptation of Rooney’s novel Normal People—have mounted a similarly exquisite production, all young people talking about their feelings in the subdued, blue of Irish sunlight washing through windows against a background of delicate room noise. But Conversations with Friends is more of a condensed ensemble piece than the long chronicle of an on-again, off-again love affair at the center of Normal People. It revolves around Oliver’s consummate performance as Frances, a young woman who not only doesn’t know what she’s doing, but also has trouble figuring out what she wants and feels. The other characters in the series’ ménage à quatre are nearly as vivid.
There’s never been a better depiction on TV of the uncertain texture of college life for people like Frances and Bobbi, whose spoken-word performances are full of sardonically confident feminist critiques of contemporary media and society even as they can barely sort out their own fates. The series leaves out almost all of the culture-studies patter about patriarchy and capitalism that peppers their barstool conversations with classmates in the novel, no doubt because what comes across as endearingly affected in print would be outright insufferable onscreen. Bobbi still identifies Frances as a communist when Melissa and Nick invite the pair over to dinner for the first time, but politics essentially never comes up again. It’s not as if the Frances in the novel spends her days on the barricades, but unlike the series’ Frances, she talks a good game.
Melissa befriends Bobbi and Frances after seeing one of their performances. The series captures all the flickering subtexts of this particular type of relationship: the younger creative people taken up by someone older, accomplished, and established. Bobbi and Frances get invitations to parties full of successful writers and artists, and Melissa asks them to stay in the spectacular vacation house in Croatia that her agent has loaned to her for the summer. Melissa gets to enjoy their admiration, the contagious energy of their youth, and Bobbi’s flirtatious attention. The shyer Frances, who was once Bobbi’s lover herself, feels shunted to the side with Nick, a handsome but not particularly successful actor who’s nearly as awkward and tongue-tied as she is. But Nick is also kind and gentle—Melissa complains that he’s “pathologically passive”—and his reticence opens up enough space between them for Frances’ desire to bloom.
Rooney’s novel is narrated by Frances, and as a result limited by what she’s able to see and understand about herself and the people around her. On the page, Frances is full of forthright declarations about “postcolonial reason” and consumerist propaganda, so it takes a while for the reader to realize that she’s drifting, caught up in Bobbi’s slipstream. Oliver’s Frances, with her huge, apprehensive eye and a slightly lurching walk that suggests she’s apologizing for tagging along with her more charismatic friend, makes Frances’ lostness instantly evident. In the novel, wanting Nick in spite of everything becomes a revelation for Frances, her initiation into adulthood. She steps into a deplorably conventional and powerless role—the other woman—but ironically, her willingness to do so is a move toward independence. The series, however, doesn’t want her to let Bobbi, and everything she represents, go.
It’s never been clear how sincerely Rooney intends her characters’ revolutionary rhetoric to be taken. Their disillusionment with the state of Western civilization is well founded, but her three novels all end with a surge of faith in romantic love—and monogamous, heterosexual love, to boot. In 2021’s Beautiful World, Where Are You?, one character—evidently based on Rooney herself—speculates that love and relationships are what human beings are born to obsess about, even when confronted with more pressing, or frankly apocalyptic problems. But, she goes on, “Isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? … Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting?” This doesn’t seem the credo of a utopian erotics.
The novel Conversations with Friends ends with the same line of dialogue as the series, but it lands differently. The novel doesn’t give the impression that, for all their closeness, Frances ever felt much physical passion toward Bobbi. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine the two women together as anything other than platonic friends, which is either a weakness of the book, or another clue that Frances, like Nick when he married Melissa, simply allowed herself to be acquired by a more forceful partner. The series, however, implies that Bobbi harbors a lingering yen for Frances, that she only broke up with her because she knew Frances could never muster the gumption to do it herself. Furthermore, the Frances of the series still desires Bobbi, who pronounces, “People think in couples. We have to work really hard to resist it.”
That’s exactly like something the Bobbi in the novel would say—idealistic but ultimately impractical. The series seems to mean it, suggesting that its characters are on the verge of a polyamorous revelation. I’m not at all sure Rooney (or I) would agree with that scenario, but one of the marvelous things about both the novel and the series is how open they leave themselves to interpretation. I’ve discussed Rooney’s characters—what really motivates them, how their lives might unfold—for hours with other fans. It’s just as if these imaginary people are as mysterious and fascinating as the real kind.