For the many lovers of normal people (2020), the new series adaptation of Rooney Conversations with friends (2022) was highly anticipated. Intertextuality is key to Rooney’s books and their screen adaptations. The way she weaves her stories and characters with the literature gives us keys to understanding them in greater depth. The importance of intertextuality in the series is underscored in the opening scene, where Bobbi recites a riddle from Frances’ poem: “I am inherently worthless but highly prized. I will empty your bank account. I’m all about love. But I have a heart of stone and I’ve been known to prefer to be possessed. Their interpretation of this poem is also what plunges our characters into the whirlwind of their intertwined romances, as they meet Melissa on this show.
Like Connell in normal people and Sally Rooney herself, Frances is also a student of English, as well as a spoken word poet. Literature is key to her character, and the books introduced to her can help us understand her more deeply and better understand how she relates to the characters around her.
The reading list:
Cat on a hot tin roofTennessee Williams (episode 1)
In the first conversation between Nick and Frances, they discuss Nick’s current work as an actor in this play, which he calls a “melodrama”, and “not a bold choice”, and Frances mentions that she “l ‘read a long time ago’. Two major themes in this work are sexual desire and repression, something that is also key in this scene, as we later find out that this conversation was the starting point for Nick and Frances’ desire for one another. each other – a desire that ultimately pushed against the boundaries of marriage between Nick and Melissa.
ChildhoodTove Ditlevsen (episode 4)
Frances reads this while on vacation, and another character jokingly remarks that it is “light summer reading”. The scene where we see Frances reading this on the beach as a whole juxtaposes her more reserved demeanor with the carefree nature of Bobbi, whom we see swimming in the sea. Ditlevsen’s experience growing up in Denmark, how she left her childhood town and developed her writing. Throughout the series there is a disconnect between the Frances we see in Dublin and the one we see when she visits her childhood home. There are also several debates in the series about authorship and what it means to write in different forms or be published – this is particularly a point of tension between Frances and Melissa.
AsymmetryLisa Halliday (episode 6)
This book is visible during a scene where Frances argues with Bobbi about her secret relationship with Nick. This novel is about a publishing employee and his relationship with an aging celebrity – ah, art imitating life…or in this case, mirroring it.
CitizenClaudia Rankine (episode 7)
A collection of poetic and lyrical essays examining race in the United States We see this while Frances is in seminary at Trinity College (so much for me to watch this show to avoid thinking about my degree). Frances is also a spoken word poet, so it makes sense that we see her reading poetry more often than not.
The seven agesLouise Glück (Episode 7)
A collection of contemporary poetry that works collectively to confront the poet’s own mortality. This book ties all the characters together, just as their relationships entangle them; Bobbi gave Frances an edition, Frances goes to buy a copy from Nick but then runs into Mellissa at the bookstore, and they end up discussing it.
The great worksRobert Browning (episode 12)
We see this book lying on a train table as Frances drives away from Dublin, reflecting her estrangement from her relationship with Nick, which is underscored by her nostalgia-fueled scrolling through images of them on her phone. Thematically, this book fits Frances and her predicament well, as many of Browning’s works focus on her courtship with fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett and the difficulties of fighting for their love against outside disapproval, leading them to conduct much of their court in secret.
Glossary of the Irish literary scene:
The stinging fly
An Irish literary magazine, where Frances’ short story is published (her first publication). Sally Rooney was also published in this magazine.
A popular bookstore in Dublin, where Frances is seen shopping in the ‘New Fiction Releases’ section. She is also seen shopping at Waterstones (classic) in Episode 7 where she collects The seven ages.
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