I bought the novel Conversations with Friends when it came out in 2017, along with lots of other women my age. At that time, we were about as old as Bobbi and Frances, the eponymous friends. The book was almost required reading; Sally Rooney was widely hailed as the millennial novelist. The insights she provided on our age group, though bleak, weren’t wrong. Lots of us, like her protagonists, had trouble negotiating relationships. Lots of us didn’t like ourselves. Lots of us read the book in the white lights of the subway with headphones on, isolated even with our bodies pressed against strangers.
Reviewers of Hulu’s 2022 streaming adaptation often complain that Rooney’s incisive generational commentary doesn’t come through on screen. The book is in large part about the problems facing young people who grew up with digital devices. It’s full of emails and DMs—but also agonizing over those emails and DMs, the mental processes of composition and interpretation. Without this interiority, the show doesn’t quite make sense. Perhaps television was the wrong medium for a story that takes consciousness as its texture. Without any thoughts, on-screen conversations between characters feel stilted and empty. The show drags. It’s slow, and often boring.
But what bothered me most about Conversations wasn’t just that it didn’t make enough sense of its character’s communicative deficiencies. It’s that those failings (and they’re obvious) don’t come with any real consequences. By the end, it’s as if they aren’t failings at all.
Frances and Bobbi talk all the time: in apartments and in emails and texts. They perform slam poetry, their dialogue so polished it constitutes a literal performance. But quantity doesn’t mean quality. Frances bites her lip and casts her eyes around and wrings her hands. Often, she says too little. Bobbi is vibrant and cunning, often saying too much. She accuses Frances of withholding: “You’re thinking things without saying them. It’s suspicious.” She cuts to the core of Frances’s quiet: “Your self-obsession is exhausting, and fucking boring.” She’s not wrong; Frances can be exasperating, “pathologically passive.” But Bobbi’s blunt honesty isn’t constructive—it’s mean. She says the right things in the wrong way.
Even so, the girls’ relationship constitutes the show’s central romance, and we’re meant to want it to work. In the novel, that support isn’t mandated. The girls are self-centered, even if that self-centeredness isn’t all their fault. The fact that they end up together is neutral at best. But the show casts them as partners in a good, if tortured, love story, dancing in clubs and having sex in a sunlit apartment. Shy and loud, introspective and bold: these two are different enough to be good for each other.