Deep into BBC Three’s Conversations With Friends, there comes a moment of reckoning. Frances (Alison Oliver) — a Dublin-based university student in her early 20s — is confronted by her BFF/poetry partner/former girlfriend/current roommate Bobbi (Sasha Lane) over a short story she’d written about her and their former relationship. It isn’t flattering, or at least Bobbi doesn’t think so. “I don’t think you think anyone else is real Frances,” Bobbi says. “Your self-obsession is exhausting, and it’s hurtful and it’s fucking boring.”
While the outburst is clearly a moment of alarming surprise for Frances, for me, as a viewer, it’s a rare moment of self-awareness that changes the whole series for both the characters as well as the writing of author Sally Rooney, whose debut novel the series is based on. Because despite the fact that Rooney has been heralded as the millennial author of our generation, and in spite of the fact that I binged and continue to rewatch Normal People with a fervour (I’m currently on my fifth take of the hit 2020 series and lusting after any and all photos of Paul Mescal in short shorts), my main gripe with much of Rooney’s writing is that the characters are largely insufferable and self-involved to the point that you want to pull your hair out from frustration.
I’m not alone. In a recent review of Conversations With Friends, Guardian journalist Lucy Mangan called Rooney’s characters in Normal People “grating overall,” but redeemable at least in their self-awareness. In Conversations, when Bobbi tells Frances she has a shiny face, reassuring her that it’s “in a good way – it makes you seem less complicated,” Mangan takes issue, writing: “This would be the perfect witty encapsulation of a profound friendship if we’d had any evidence beforehand that Frances is more complicated than any other 21-year-old walking through Dublin that day.” Essentially, Rooney’s characters, and especially those in CWF, tend to be self-involved, thinking themselves — and their issues — to be the greatest out there.
It’s difficult not to feel this way watching the first few episodes of the series. While Normal People made me scream at my laptop screen repeatedly, pleading with the show’s Connell and Marianne to just speak to each other frankly, for once (please!!), in CWF, I found myself screaming for an entirely different reason, asking Oliver’s Frances if she seriously thought she was the victim.
Throughout the 12-episode run, the audience watches as Frances continuously and increasingly makes decisions that affect and negatively impact others: starting an affair with a married man, kissing her girlfriend-turned-friend when she’s lonely (taking in absolutely zero account for how Bobbi might be feeling), and getting upset when her married boyfriend decides to resume sleeping with his wife. This is all while she seemingly fails to acknowledge that anyone else could be impacted or harmed except her.
My main gripe with much of Rooney’s writing is that the characters are largely insufferable and self-involved to the point that you want to pull your hair out from frustration.
We see this clearly in episode 12 when Frances confronts Melissa (Jemima Kirke) — the wife of Frances’ boyfriend Nick — for sharing her short story with Bobbi, arguing that the author and photographer did so because she’s jealous of her and looking for a way to get back at her for the affair. This idea, and the conversation as a whole, of course fails to acknowledge how Frances herself has harmed Melissa and her marriage.
Frances’ self-obsession becomes apparent again during a tumultuous fight with Bobbi as Bobbi reads aloud the short story, which describes how she measures herself in comparison to Bobbi and often wishes she was her. Frances paints Bobbi as someone biting and truthful, with “thin wrists'' and a tough exterior, essentially reducing her friend to just a body to be inhabited and an exterior for Frances to put on. As Bobbi tells Frances in a fit of rage: “It’s so fucking dehumanising…is that really how you see me? Like my only role is to move effortlessly through the world in contrast to poor fucking you?”
“That to me was the perfect moment to say, ‘you aren’t the victim here,’ and also if you want a friendship with me, I don’t like that you put me on a pedestal because I don't need to be anyone else,” Lane, who plays Bobbi, tells Refinery29. “[When you do that] I don't get to be anyone other than you see me as. And it's hurtful.”
Oliver, who portrays Frances, understands that the foursome at the centre of the novel, and her character specifically, might not be your favourite people, but she says she actually admires this aspect of Rooney’s novels. “I think in life everyone tries to be the best version of themselves and try and put their best foot forward,” Oliver tells Refinery29. “And actually, that's not always the case if a person's in a difficult place, or they haven't been given much love or kindness growing up, they don't really know how to be a certain way.”
Oliver says it’s compelling to see characters who are in opposition to themselves or are incredibly flawed as they navigate life — and that includes being incredibly self-involved. “I just really admire that [Rooney’s] just like, this is just where they are in their life.”
“I don't think you have to like the characters and I also don't think you have to like their choices,” Lane says. “I think the biggest part about it is can you really judge them?”
This criticism isn’t to say that the experiences and feelings Rooney’s characters have aren’t valid. Because they are. Conversations With Friends specifically deals with relatable and necessary topics that are often overlooked or aren’t talked about, like fertility and endometriosis in young people. And for its part, Normal People is relatable across race and ethnicity for the fact that it tackles universal experience like falling in love for the first time. And who among us hasn’t felt like our world was imploding or felt emotions strongly as teenagers?
But this crippling self-obsession, coupled with the fact that Rooney’s books and characters, are incredibly white and are so popular in a media landscape that still often shelves BIPOC characters and stories, it’s difficult not to find frustration and fault in yet another mediocre middle class white woman feeling wounded because she doesn’t like her role as a 21-year-old mistress. And it’s equally difficult to not be upset that a story like this is framed as if those emotions are the only ones that matter.
Especially when you compare the show’s treatment of Frances’ to Bobbi, who’s a Black woman navigating an extremely white space (Lane’s casting is a deviation from the book, which is briefly addressed in the first episode). As Bobbi later tells Frances, in one of Lane’s favourite lines from the series, Frances holds much more power — and, in many ways, privilege — than she thinks she does. It’s infuriating that in a book and series about people who pride themselves on being intellectuals, Frances doesn’t see or acknowledge that herself.
Which is why when Bobbi yells: “What is wrong with you?” you can’t help but feel like the question isn’t just posed to Frances in a moment of passion, but rather a sly acknowledgment of the type of character Frances is — and the criticisms of Rooney’s characters as a whole. Whether intentional or not, Bobbi’s very accurate calling out of Frances, who by this point feels like the perfect encapsulation of all the criticisms against Rooney’s books, is by extension a critique or acknowledgment of the books and the characters as a whole.
Yes, these characters are predominantly white, incredibly self-involved, and not the least bit self-aware, but at least somebody knows it, even if that somebody isn’t Frances herself.