Review: Normal People vs Conversations With Friends
Here's where I'm at - I've read and watched both of Sally Rooney's books that have been adapted by the BBC. I'm yet to read her new book - 'Beautiful World, Where Are You'.
Although Conversations With Friends (CWF) was written before Normal People (NP) I read them the other way around, with the BBC's lockdown phenomenon adaptation of NP sandwiched between reading the two books.
You can tell both books are written by the same person. The relaxed style lacks punctation when it comes to speech, which gives them a really informal tone I think - something that is reflected in the studenty worlds we see in both stories. The lead characters are in that stage of life where they just have uni going on, which isn't the most stressful time of life let's be honest. So this easy-going nature of their lifestyles is reflected in the simple writing style.
Both books are set in Ireland and centre around students. In CWF it's a couple of students getting mixed up with a married couple and one of them starting an affair with the husband. More refreshing but still with complications is NP, a love story between two students which follows them from school right through to graduation. If you were to boil both books down it would be 'love with complications'. There are highs and lows in both, and although there are definite story arcs for the characters, there isn't a big ending that we seem to crave nowadays or the traditional build in story, unfortunate event in the middle, and then everything being solved in the end. Instead they just end, with a suggestion of what the characters might do next, but nothing more concrete than that.
I had a love for Marianne and Connell in NP which I really struggled to gain with any character in CWF. They have their problems and there are moments of frustration because you just want them to be honest with each other and communicate better to avoid a load of heartache, but in the end they've both grown as people and although we're not given a clean-cut happy ending, it is suggested they will always be in each other's lives in one way or another. It could have really easily become a cliche story of boy meets girl and they're from different social bachgrounds, only to find they're perfect for each other. We've seen that many times and that's great but not exactly meaty or unique. If it had followed this cliche it wouldn't have had the level of success it did in my opinion. Instead, NP is heart-warming and comforting in a way that means you can (and I have) returned to the book and the series - something that can't be said for CWF.
I read CWF earlier this year when I first heard about the BBC adaptation. I wanted to approach the series in the same way I had with NP - book first. I wanted to love it just like NP but I really struggled with the book, and consequently the series. My dislike for it is simple - I hate the characters. Frances is a student that has an affair with an older married man. They're both socially awkward and that's what brings them together in a way. Sweet idea, but I don't like either of them. Frances is draining on the page and screen. She's a narcissist - only wrapped up in her own problems which results in her being a crap person to the people around her. The book is relatively short so I feel like I didn't struggle with that too much, but 12 episodes of her feeling sorry for herself was more than enough for me. I try to look for qualities in a character I don't like and I really couldn't find anything with her that I warmed to, even when she was in pain with endometriosis.
Rather than this becoming a piece about me hating Frances I'll move on. To summarise though, I didn't really like any of the characters around her either. Bobbie thinks she knows everything but comes across as out of touch with reality and Nick is just a bit of a wet flannel to be honest.
I feel like in both of these books you're not reading for twists and turns and lots of action (although I am aware there is a lot of action in the BBC adaptations...if you know what I mean) and instead it is meant to portray realistic stories about people and the situations they get into. Therefore I feel like there needs to be something about these character which makes you want to care about them - if you don't have that then what's the point? In NP there were characters we liked, even if we hated them and their actions along the way. In CWF I didn't like them throughout the whole plot so with very little happening there wasn't anything to keep me entertained.
If you take anything from this, it is that if you're going to read/watch one of them, choose NP. I like Rooney's style and I'm excited to read her next book, but I'm just praying I like the characters more than Frances.
*I do not own the photo in this piece*