When Sally Rooney’s wildly popular second novel Normal People found new life through its TV adaptation two years ago, the release of the brooding romantic drama – revolving around the increasingly complicated relationship between popular school jock Connell and library-loving outcast Marianne – had timing on its side. It hit screens just a month after the UK entered lockdown for the first time: a surreal, once-in-a-generation period of history that left a captive audience twiddling their thumbs at home and flicking listlessly through Tinder in a state of horny melancholy.
While the shimmering golden strands of Connell’s chain flapping about mid-coitus undoubtedly helped to cheer the nation up no end, there was far more to the show than the realism of its well-choreographed sex scenes (since Normal People’s release, the practice of hiring intimacy coordinators has become far more commonplace in the industry). It also asked blurry, complicated questions about class, privilege and power, and didn’t claim to hold any answers.
Helmed by many members of the same creative team who brought Normal People to life, including Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, Conversations With Friends – Rooney’s debut novel – is also rooted in power imbalance. When Trinity College students Frances and Bobbi first meet Dublin literary power couple the Conways, they can’t help but be swept along by their casual aura of wealth: actor Nick and writer Melissa wear their self-consciously stylish apartment and nonchalant hospitality as easily as the €300 cashmere coat draped around Nick’s shoulders.
In the eyes of Bobbi and Frances, who used to date but now perform spoken-word poetry together as mates, their new, slightly older friends have a kind of creative, grown-up glamour. Bobbi quickly announces she has a crush on Melissa, and though Frances initially rolls her eyes in the background, she soon ends up entangled in a full-blown affair with Nick. Things quickly become uncomfortable.
With Bobbi and Frances meeting Melissa just four minutes into the first episode, Conversations… starts out just as nimbly as the entangled plot of Rooney’s debut novel. But as the series progresses, whole episodes are dedicated to relatively small segments from the book, and it might have felt more cohesive had it been trimmed down slightly. Witty and dry-humoured in the novel, Joe Alwyn’s Nick is far more brooding and unreadable, the foil to Jemima Kirke’s stand-out portrayal of the ambitious but hugely insecure Melissa.
Some of the more nuanced class differences between the two partnerships are toned down, too. In Rooney’s novel, money and status is a constant presence, with Nick’s mates calling Frances a “culchie” (someone from rural Ireland) and her mother highlighting the long waiting times in public healthcare when Frances is suddenly rushed to hospital. Though financial power is still alluded to, it feels underexplored here.
As with Normal People, the show’s eclectic soundtrack is on point, underpinned largely by atmospheric Irish indie (CMAT, Cosha and The Sei) and rich, neo-classical piano by the likes of Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. But while the chemistry at the heart of Normal People yanked Connell and Marianne out of otherwise inevitable melancholia, Conversations With Friends feels a lot colder – and deliberately so. The story of four characters who are all putting on an act, it’s a complex exploration of the lengths that we’ll go to to hide the hidden, vulnerable parts of ourselves, and the things we think and then refuse to say.
Will Conversations With Friends be an enormous cultural phenomenon in the same way as its predecessor? Probably not, but it’s still a thorny, compelling watch all the same.
Conversations With Friends will premiere on BBC Three on May 15