Warning: Minor spoilers ahead!
With the BBC adaptation of Normal People giving the TV lovers of lockdown a new obsession, it’s no surprise that the book of Normal People flew off of Amazon’s shelves and went out of stock for weeks on end. Due to the success of Normal People, her other fiction book Conversations with Friends was picked up by readers who enjoyed the author, Sally Rooney’s work previously. Rooney is now one of the biggest authors of 2020, regardless of only having two books. It has been confirmed that Conversations with Friends will also be made into a BBC adaptation, along with rumours of a Normal People Season 2. The books have sprouted many arguments between readers: which is better?
This youth orientated book explores the relationship of Connell, a popular yet reserved sports boy who fears his peers’ opinions, and Marianne, a sensitive yet upfront girl who has spent her whole life feeling unloved. The book is written in third person, and takes turn showing the reader the perspective from both individuals, as well as how they react to each other.
The first part of the book explores their relationship at school, how they interact with their peers and how they are with each other, emotionally and sexually. The second half then switches to university, where they meet again, older but still as complex as ever. The timeline stays linear but is filled by flashbacks of previous memories to keep the reader in the loop.
A memorable part to most viewers of the TV adaptation of Normal People is the graphic sexual content. Although there are descriptions of a sexual nature in the book, they are nowhere near as detailed as the show. And they are most definitely a crucial part in expanding the books plot and showing that sex is a key area of most adolescents.
Dialogue is a key feature of this book, as the little words they say tend to carry the weight of their emotions. Lines such as “are you cold?” aren’t simply indications of Connell’s interest in Marianne’s welfare, but also a signal that he wants her to come inside and be with him.
The ending of the book arguably leaves audiences feeling dissatisfied. As a reader, I felt torn at loving Rooney for her unique and unpredictable approach and hating her for not giving me the fairy tale ending my heart desired. On reflection, I think the ending reflects Marianne’s character perfectly: she never says what she feels, but only what she thinks the Connell wants to hear.
The beauty of Normal People is that although Marianne and Connell are extremely flawed as people, the reader is still rooting for their happiness. There are times in the book, just as with the TV show, that will make you want to reach through the pages to shake them both, while shouting, “communicate!”.
As much as I enjoyed Normal People, I don’t think I would have been as touched by the book if I hadn’t watched the show. I will never be able to see Connell and Marianne as anyone other than Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, and when reading the story that I had watched unfold three times in a row a week before, I felt that the characters were very different on paper. Connell, who in the show appears sweeter and caring, sometimes comes across as ignorant and insensitive in the book. Marianne, who on screen is a blend of insecure and upfront, seems at points drippy and needy. Of course, they share common traits, but having seen more likeable characters on screen, it is harder to adjust to a different depiction.
Conversations with Friends:
I read Conversations with Friends straight after Normal People without knowing a single thing about the book, apart from that it was written by Rooney. From the first chapter, I was enticed. It differs from Normal People as it is written in first person, which I generally prefer to third, and the story is told from just the viewpoint of Frances. She is displayed as a distant and cold young woman, often hiding in the shadow of her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobby. The two friends meet glamorous journalist Melissa, who attends their spoken word poetry show, and Bobby grows close to her. Feeling neglected, Frances bonds with Melissa’s husband Nick and they engage in an affair.
The book explores themes of love or loneliness, as the reader is never sure of Frances’ feelings towards Melissa’s husband, or the same vice versa. There is also underlying sexual tension between Frances and Bobby, with issues appearing unresolved but never said so in so many words.
Frances is portrayed beautifully, with a strong personality that comes across mostly from her depiction of others. Although more introverted than Bobby, she is definitely a more interesting character, which is why she works flawlessly as the story’s protagonist. Bobby is,at points, annoying. She has an opinion on everything, and, through Frances’ eyes, she is constantly debating or arguing. Despite this, she remains an endearing character and a key player in the story.
Melissa’s character of ‘the wife’ is very different to the archetypical matriarch one might expect to find in novels that depict an affair. Usually the wife is grounded, passive and/or obedient, but Melissa is closer to the usual depiction of ‘the other woman’. She is a free spirit and, as we find out as readers, has engaged in affairs before Nick with Frances. Her carefree personality is a great contrast to Nick, who is closer to passive and wanting to please everyone. At points he is irritating, and I wanted to slap him across the head with a shoe for his actions. Yet, he somewhat redeems himself through his wit and good nature.
The surrounding characters are not as strong as they are in Normal People. Marianne’s string of terrible boyfriends and surrounding family members are far superior to Melissa and her husband’s friends, who we meet in Conversations with Friends. They don’t appear to add anything to the story and are there more for embellishment. The only supporting character with any real substance is the looming aunt figure who visits Melissa and Nick in their summer home.
Tying in with Normal People, Conversations with Friends also explores sex, and the sexual content within the novel is actually much greater than the Normal People book. This raises the question of how much sexual content will be in the BBC’s adaptation. As there were around five heavy sex scenes in Normal People, it is likely that we can expect double this for Conversations with Friends.
Differing from Normal People, this book also explores self-harm, making it a lot more visceral. Moments where Frances rips into her flesh or digs her nails into her arm had me outwardly cringing and sometimes darting my eyes to the next paragraph until it was over.
The ending of Conversations with Friends is superb and more satisfying than Normal People. Although it does not neatly tie itself together, the final line of “come get me” provokes a mixture of sassiness and Frances’ vulnerability.
Although both novels are an absolute blend of genius, I preferred Conversations with Friends but merely because the TV adaptation of Normal People will always have a special place in my heart, and subsequently the novel had more of a challenge to live up to. Perhaps we will see once Conversations with Friends is adapted, and maybe my opinion will change.
Images courtesy of Chris Boland and Wikimedia Commons.