What Frances does or does not want is the central mystery of both this series and its source material, and her indecisiveness comes across as a realistic side-effect of her young age. Like many men in their 30s who believe that 20-year-old women understand them better than their wives, what Nick adores about Frances is how impressive and adult he seems reflected in her eyes – both the novel and the show are smart enough to subtly imply the possibility that Nick has honed in on the less confident friend for reasons other than her intellect and charm. “He’s actually very passive,” Frances informs Bobbi, who shrewdly suggests that Nick’s passivity might be a smokescreen that allows him to shirk blame. Conversations with Friends is unafraid to move at a snail’s pace, the same slowness and attention to intimate, tender detail that characterised Normal People proving equally as rewarding here; the difference is that we are not watching the unfolding of cerebral puppy love, but of a tale as old as time. The first time they sleep together, Nick tells Frances afterwards: “I can’t believe we did that,” and when Frances shoots back “yes, you can,” Oliver plays the line with a surprising note of melancholy, as if rather than being flirtatious or funny she is pointing out the terrible cliché of the scene.
Rooney’s dialogue, which sometimes has a tendency to make her characters sound like brainy, argumentative variations on the author, appears sparingly, and the cast – as in Normal People – do a fine job of inflecting it with genuine emotion. When I read the novel, I confess that I found Bobbi’s smug and verbose rant about the “transhistorical concept of romantic love” merely irritating; here, her rejection of the very concept of monogamy is tied in more explicitly to her distress over her parents’ ongoing divorce. “You two are such grown-ups,” she says flatteringly to Nick and Melissa at one point, the implication being that she and Frances aren’t.
On screen, minus the constant clever barbs, the two girls show their youth more obviously than they do in Rooney’s novel, and that obvious youth breeds pathos. In a scene where Frances slips Nick’s overcoat over her bare skin and appraises herself in the bedroom mirror, it is unclear whether she’s doing so in order to feel closer to her married lover, or because she’s trying on adulthood for size. If Normal People was about two individuals who should have been together, failing to achieve the right level of synchronicity, developing “like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another”, Conversations with Friends is about lovers who refuse to give each other up, even when they ought to – it is about growth, too, but also about the wilful stunting of it.
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