Secrets and lies and 'Conversations with Friends' : Pop Culture Happy Hour Irish writer Sally Rooney's book Normal People was adapted into a Hulu series in 2020. Now, her first novel Conversations with Friends gets its own Hulu adaptation. It tells the story of two college friends and exes (Alison Oliver and Sasha Lane) who meet a married couple (Joe Alwyn and Jemima Kirke) and get very deeply entangled with them, which makes everything very complicated.

Secrets and lies and 'Conversations with Friends'

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Irish writer Sally Rooney's book "Normal People" was adapted into a Hulu series in 2020. Now her first novel, "Conversations With Friends," gets its own Hulu adaptation. It tells the story of two college friends and exes who meet a married couple and get very deeply entangled with them, which makes everything very complicated. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about "Conversations With Friends" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

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HOLMES: Joining us today is writer Kat Chow. Her memoir, "Seeing Ghosts," is available now. Welcome back, Kat.

KAT CHOW: Hey, Linda.

HOLMES: And also here with us is writer Katie Presley. Welcome back, Katie.

KATIE PRESLEY: Howdy.

HOLMES: All right. So "Conversations With Friends" is centrally about Frances, played by Alison Oliver, a college student and a poet. Her best friend, Bobbi, played by Sasha Lane, is also her ex-girlfriend. They meet up with a writer, Melissa, and her husband Nick, who are played by Jemima Kirke and Joe Alwyn. Frances and Nick eventually begin an affair that unsettles not only, obviously, Frances' love life but also her friendship with Bobbi. A good chunk of the creative team from the well-regarded Hulu production of "Normal People" returns for this series, including director Lenny Abrahamson, cinematographer Suzie Lavelle and writer Alice Birch. I want to go first to you, Katie. You are a fan of this book or not a fan of this book.

PRESLEY: I am a fan of this book. Yeah.

HOLMES: Fan of the book. How did you feel about the Hulu series?

PRESLEY: I had mixed feelings about the series. So I'll start by saying when you engage with the Rooney-verse (ph), the show adaptations in the Sally Rooney-verse, you are, like, gifting yourself something, right? These are decadent shows. They're, like, decadently European. They're decadently angsty. They're decadently sexy. And that is true absolutely in this adaptation.

But overall, I did feel watching this like it was a chewier watch than, for example, "Normal People" was. I think some of that but not all of that was due to performances that I found took, like, a few too many steps on the whispered path to, like, ellipsis mountain. But I think it's also to do with the material. Frances, the main character, is a little harder to invest in for me. There are certainly more relationships to kind of keep track of than we saw in "Normal People." And I've been trying to find the right word for this all week. There's, like, a coldness or a distance that I felt here that I think is totally by design. I don't think that's, like, a blip or fault of anybody.

HOLMES: Right, right, right.

PRESLEY: I think it is written into the text and directed into the show, but it did cause me to feel some distance from kind of everything in the show that I didn't have in "Normal People." I felt "Normal People" - there was heat at the center of it. In "Conversations With Friends," I would say it's coldness at the center of it.

HOLMES: That's a really interesting distinction. Kat, what did you think?

CHOW: I actually really love how you described the coldness and sort of the lack of heat in "Conversations With Friends." So, you know, I've read all of Rooney's books, and I don't think that a show has to have fidelity to its book or original source that it's based off of because to me, that's what makes adaptation so compelling. And yet I found the coldness of Rooney's writing not really translating as well to the adaptation in the series.

So Brandon Taylor - he's a novelist and a writer. He reviewed Sally Rooney's most recent novel, "Beautiful World, Where Are You." And he described her writing as nouns and verbs, which I thought was really astute. There's this kind of vibe that Rooney kind of describes with her writing, but everything is so taut. So the reader kind of has to, you know, take what they can. And as it translates to a TV show, I felt that there was so much more that I wanted. While the acting was compelling - I found these performances really lovely - there was just a kind of a stilted quality where I enjoyed watching it, but I found myself always wanting a little bit more.

HOLMES: Yeah. I feel like - it's interesting because I felt when I started watching this, I did not look ahead of time at the fact that it was - a bunch of it was the same creative team as "Normal People." I knew it was obviously the same novelist. But I did immediately, you know, think to myself, in tone it reminded me so much of "Normal People" - in tone and look and feel, the way they handle sex scenes, which tends to be very kind of candid and specific in a way that I kind of like where it does always feel like this is the love scene between these people at this time. It's not - they're not generic, which I appreciate.

PRESLEY: Yeah.

HOLMES: You know, these relationships are so complicated. I think the easy read on this story is it's a story about how infidelity tears a bunch of people apart, right? And I don't think that's what the story is. I think the story is kind of more about Frances figuring out which of the close relationships in her life can accommodate each other, can live alongside each other. How much do you have to be honest in order for that to work? I think honesty in some ways is the emotional push of this story.

CHOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: But I think that emotions that are in this story are so complex. The interiority in "Normal People" was a little bit easier for me to latch on to because it was so much about kind of, you know, I love this person, but I am resisting them - a kind of a couple story and not a straight line but a single emotional thread, and so the interiority did not get lost as easily. I think in this, I sort of got the sense of Frances pretty well. But I think some of the other characters I had a little - you know, you get this feeling with Bobbi that she's so charismatic and kind of magnetic. But there were also a lot of times when I just thought she seemed like a jerk.

CHOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: And I kind of wanted - like, not always. But, like, at times I felt like there was something about that character that I was supposed to be picking up that I wasn't in terms of her kind of - everyone being interested in her, wanting to, you know, be around her and have her in their lives. So I agree with you. It's like it reminded me a lot of "Normal People" until I went back and read my review of "Normal People" and remembered how much I really loved it. And I did not have that reaction to this.

CHOW: I completely agree with what you were saying about Bobbi, for example. I wanted more motivations for her character. And, you know, I think that "Conversations With Friends," the TV show, tried to sort of allude to these other storylines, like Bobbi's parents were getting divorced. There is another subplot with Frances related to fertility and something going on with her body, endometriosis. But I never felt like those things were fleshed out. And I couldn't tell if they needed to be or if they should have just been left alone because I kept thinking, what are they adding to this storyline? What are they doing to the rhythms of this show as it progresses through its 12-episode arc? And I guess that's something that I was kind of wondering and want to know what you two think about.

PRESLEY: I will gently posit that what is missing from Bobbi's character is armpit hair.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESLEY: I think that if we are to believe that these two college students, communists the both of them, queer-identifying former lovers, current friends, are the people that we are being told they are, I did not see enough armpit hair. But I actually do think that that really would have helped to crack the specimen-in-a-jar style of Rooney's writing that sometimes doesn't make it to the screen. And just by nature of adapting a Rooney novel, a specimen-in-a-jar kind of writer to the screen, you are putting the specimen into a body, and you're working with the mirror neurons of the viewers. And just by nature of that, you're going to, like, cross some gaps that you might have felt reading her work.

But a detail like that, like physical details about characters that can speak a lot of shorthand, I think, were missing. And Bobbi is a character that - seriously, the first time she raised her arms in the show, I was like, (imitates buzzer) try again. But really, in general, like, that is the kind of thing that - a little thing that can do a lot of character work in a show where there were kind of gaps, I felt.

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, it sort of underscores the importance of fine detail in a situation where you are asking people to invest in something with a lot of interiority. And I think there's just something about that character that's not quite fully cooked. And so for one thing...

CHOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Frances' preoccupation with her and with that relationship doesn't fully come through because the character's not fully coming through. And I suspect the relationship between Bobbi and Frances is where the interiority of the book was most lost because I did feel like I understood her relationship with Nick. I think they do a nice job of sort of explaining that, yes, this relationship is based on dishonesty or at least concealment. You know, he is not being honest with his wife. She's keeping it from Bobbi, who certainly would expect to know, whether fairly or unfairly, such a big thing about Frances' life.

But I think they do a good job of still making that a relationship that is real and that is, in some ways, obviously sloppy and dangerous and full of hazard but also is happy for them. And I think despite the fact that I would say Alwyn probably has the least to do that's complicated among all these people...

PRESLEY: Agreed.

HOLMES: ...He manages to walk that line where you understand that he genuinely cares about his wife and he genuinely cares about Frances. And that's a very important element as the story goes on to kind of what Rooney is trying to say. So I feel like that relationship is sort of honored in a way that I felt like I understood it - her relationship with Nick. And her relationship with Bobbi, I think, is maybe where the complexity of that - they've been romantically involved. They're now best friends. That's a complicated relationship. And there are a couple times where they suddenly tell you something explicitly about that relationship that I'm like, yeah, I don't know if that's what I was picking up from the...

PRESLEY: Right.

CHOW: Right.

HOLMES: ...Story thus far. And then all of a sudden, you know - I don't think it's a huge spoiler. Say, you know, Frances will suddenly kind of spill her guts about something, and it's like, this is not what I understood her to be feeling.

CHOW: Right, right, right.

HOLMES: And this is not what I understood this relationship to be about.

CHOW: I found the relationship between Frances and Melissa - Melissa is played by Jemima Kirke in a role that feels really familiar, you know...

HOLMES: Yeah.

CHOW: ...Sort of this really sharp-witted person who is maybe hiding something more vulnerable. I found it at times really compelling. There were some scenes in particular that I'm thinking of that - where the two of them are just alone, and they're speaking about Joe Alwyn's character. And it seems as if there is almost this, like, tightrope of emotion between them that they're both trying to walk, and you never quite know who is in control of the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS")

ALISON OLIVER: (As Frances Flynn) There's no plan, if that's what you mean.

JEMIMA KIRKE: (As Melissa Baines) Right. Yeah, that's what Nick said, but I wanted to hear it from you. Nick likes to tell people what they want to hear.

OLIVER: (As Frances Flynn) Does he?

KIRKE: (As Melissa Baines) That's not your experience of him.

CHOW: And I wish that dynamic had been explored and that tension, too, because I think, you know, these are two women who care about the same people, not just one person. And I think, you know, if this adaptation veered further from the novel, that would have been a relationship I would have wanted more of.

PRESLEY: Both of Frances' woman-centric vectors, you know, to Melissa and to Bobbi - I think both of those suffered a little bit from, again, something that I think might be endemic to Rooney's work is the central conceit of main character-itis (ph), right? So, like, in this story, both Melissa and Bobbi eventually lecture Frances on what really could be the defining arc of the show, which is, like, Frances learns that she affects other people. And those lectures, when they come, are such a relief because, like, I, watching, felt very frustrated with Frances. But the central conceit is that the, like, sexy outsider weirdo is worth the fuss to some degree. You sort of have to agree with that in order to get with the Rooney program. And so these kind of ways that we are feeling the lack of structure to Bobbi or, like, wanting a little bit more from Melissa, I think, can point back to or can be blamed on the central conceit of, like, we fundamentally have to believe, no matter how frustrated we are with Frances, that she is worth the fuss.

I loved the Kirke performance. I think it was my favorite performance in the series. She did so much heavy lifting in all of her scenes. And, again, I was talking earlier about the heat versus cold kind of core of the show. She brought emotional depth to, like, everything that she worked with. I actually - I pulled a clip that I think gets at what both Kat and I were just talking about.

CHOW: Yeah.

PRESLEY: This scene, to set it up, is the dinner party. It's the first time that she is seeing Frances and Bobbi after finding out about the affair.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS")

KIRKE: (As Melissa Baines) OK, Bobbi, you can sit next to me.

SASHA LANE: (As Bobbi Connolly) Cool.

KIRKE: (As Melissa Baines) Frances and Nick over there. Does everyone have their wine glasses?

LANE: (As Bobbi Connolly) Yes.

OLIVER: (As Frances Flynn) Yes.

PRESLEY: I think there is more work done in that chuckle before the word, OK, more emotional truth to that moment than just about any other moment in the show. It's the moment where Bobbi and Nick and Frances are sort of hovering while Melissa is setting the table, and she realizes that they are waiting to be told where to sit because now there's this awkward dynamic. Is she going to sit next to her husband, or is her husband going to sit next to his girlfriend? It is a glorious performance, but again, there's a wanting more.

HOLMES: I like the fairness to that character...

PRESLEY: Absolutely.

CHOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...In sort of being straightforward about the fact that somebody has to - especially when you are dealing with Frances, who can be so frustratingly passive about things and so frustratingly sort of acting like things are just happening to her that, in fact, she's participating in, which is kind of the same, you know, nut graph that you were talking about earlier, Katie. But I think it is fair to that character of Melissa to kind of make it clear that, like, somebody has to actually make the decisions about what's going to happen next. Somebody has to figure out what we're doing. Somebody has to figure out what's going on.

I did feel some shifting allegiances to the degree that I had allegiances in this - times when I was frustrated with one character, times when I was frustrated with a different character - which is I think is exactly what you're going for. So, you know, I found this satisfying but not as good as I thought "Normal People" was. Like, it didn't give me that same, like, glowy feeling, certainly, as "Normal People."

PRESLEY: Yeah. Agreed.

CHOW: Yeah. I think that also the sex scenes in "Normal People" based on the chemistry was - they were just so amazing. And in "Conversations With Friends," like what you were saying before, Linda, there was that intimacy and that closeness, and it felt very real. But I'm not sure the chemistry for me was there between Frances and Nick.

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, it's also a different stage of life...

CHOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...A little bit - right? - because when you first start seeing the characters in "Normal People," they're really quite young. They're having high school sex. And I do think this show treats its sex as a little bit more glamorous than...

PRESLEY: Agreed.

CHOW: Yes, yes.

HOLMES: ...Significantly more glamorous than "Normal People" did in terms of, like, this is hot and fantasy-like in some ways. It's still, I think - I still like the love scenes in this, but I don't think it quite has that feeling of, like, grubby, sweaty.

CHOW: Yes, where you can hear, like, breathing.

HOLMES: Getting people's elbows in your stomach and stuff like that. I really liked that about the prior show, and I do think they go a little bit more gauzy with the sex here, partly in order to kind of underscore that it makes - it gives Frances this kind of magical feeling of specialness...

CHOW: Right.

HOLMES: ...Which I get.

PRESLEY: Yeah, it's worth shouting out that Ita O'Brien was the intimacy coordinator on both shows. And just the presence of an intimacy coordinator is something that is completely worth props, you know, making sure that your actors, especially your young actors, feel safe, feel specifically comfortable with each other and with each other's bodies and with their own bodies does make a difference. The sex is still great to watch in this show, but I agree in terms of actually moving the plot in the same way that it did in "Normal People," revealing deep truths about the characters, it didn't for me get there. But the work behind it is real and good.

CHOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: It's still very sexy sex in my opinion.

PRESLEY: Yeah. Totally.

HOLMES: It's still very sexy sex. It's just a different kind of sexy sex. All right. Well, we want to know what you think about "Conversations With Friends." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Kat Chow, Katie Presley, thank you so much to both of you for being here.

CHOW: Thank you.

PRESLEY: Thank you.

HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, sign up for our newsletter. That's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. This episode was produced by Anna Isaacs and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you are tapping your foot to right now. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about Kendrick Lamar's new album.

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