Do you have friends whom you talk to? Like, really, truly have conversations with? The kind of friends who can sense your emotional temperature at one glance, and forgive you even when you’ve been a total jackass? Because that’s what deep friendship is about: strong and nourishing enough to paper over cracks, or to pick up threads from wherever they were left off.
Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends (2017) took me back to a time when I shared living space with college pals, and the classes we took during the daytime seemed almost like an adjunct to the growing up that was happening alongside. Short-lived romances, stints in the library, sparring with mates, worries about the future, accompanied by intense, long chats that never ended, only ever taking a break before we circled back to each other.
The terrific televised version of Rooney’s Normal People (2018), about hormonal high-schoolers looking for their groove, served with sides of frantic sex, came in 2020, during the first lockdown. The same creative team (director Lenny Abrahamson and co-writer Alice Birch) has come together again for Conversations With Friends, which gives us a foursome in Dublin, two young women, friends from their kindergarten days, who get involved with an older couple who are part of the city’s sophisticated, artistic circles.
For a few of the initial episodes (there are 12 in this miniseries, streaming on Hulu and available in India later this month on Lionsgate Play), I caught myself getting restive.
Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) reading out sharp verse at open-mic sessions start off as a captivating pair. And then, as they get caught up in the shaky coupledom of the Conways, Nick (Joe Alwyn) and Melissa (Jemima Kirke), things begin to slacken. It doesn’t help that Frances, through whose voice we are led in the book and the series, comes off as annoying, at least to begin with, with her perennial air of social awkwardness, and her ability to constantly wade into grey areas, overlaid by a weird passivity which breaks through in even more misguided aggression.
But as it goes along, Oliver manages to create a real girl who wears her heart on her sleeve and doesn’t care who knows it. Frances is perfect for the weakest character of the series, Nick, whose own inexplicable defensiveness is at odds with his attractiveness. The luminous Bobbi is lovely, willing to temper her judgemental attitude towards people, as is the very swish Melissa whose confidence rests on a knife-edge: she understands, intellectually, that her husband has the right to stray, perhaps as a response to her own brief dalliance, but emotionally, it is altogether more difficult.
Like with your BFFs, you keep returning to Conversations With Friends, which works best when it is mining the rocky terrain inhabited by close friends, as they talk their way past occasional sulks and deeper hurt, and cyclical bouts of irritation and affection. The way normal people do.