BOOK REVIEW: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Conversations with Friends is about two childhood friends, Frances and Bobbi, who complete each other in a wholesome platonic way (though they did once have a brief stint as a romantic couple). The women exist in stark contrast to one another within social situations, with Frances, being the shy and often reserved figure within the friendship group, frequently finding herself overshadowed by the exuberant and flamboyant personality of Bobbi.

Inseparable, they attend university together and spend almost every possible waking moment in each other’s company. Hyper-intelligent and politically active, in their spare time, they use the platform of spoken poetry to express their uncompromising views. Frances is the avid and sole writer at the helm of the material, and shares the stage with Bobbi, who, of the two of them, is the effortless and passionate performer that conveys the words with power. It is at a spoken poetry event that they first meet Melissa, a charming older woman who photographs them for a feature in a magazine. Melissa takes the young women under her wing, and it is from this point that the lives of the ladies are intrinsically changed. Invited regularly to her bourgeois home, shared with her handsome husband Nick, Frances and Bobbi’s friendship is tested by jealousy and secrets in a way that it has never been before.

In classic Rooney style, not much “happens” in Conversations with Friends. Despite that, I stayed up till 2-am to finish as I couldn’t put it down. Perhaps this is because it’s a stylistic break from some of the more heavy literature I’ve read recently or because of the fact that, from the outset, I was hooked in by the allure of the strangely dislikeable and morally questionable protagonists. It’s nice not to have an affinity with the people who are leading the story, for once.

I would say that the main notable attribute of the novel is that there are striking similarities with Normal People, the second novel by Sally Rooney. I’ll give some examples: Frances, like Marianne, is insecure and often self-destructive in her exploits. She harms herself instinctively when upset and chases an unrewarding relationship with Nick, knowing from the get-go that her decision will have devastating consequences. Marianne does the very same thing, collecting meaningless partners as a means to pass the time or at least give the appearance of general romantic interest. Are they one in the same?

Not only that, but the intimacy between Bobbi and Frances really demonstrated the powerful love of platonic relationships in a way that I found to resemble the strength and durability of Marianne and Connell’s relationship. Though the two are diverted by their separate relationships with Melissa and Nick, like magnets, they are inevitably drawn together once again. This can also be said for Marianne and Connell. Strangely, there was an almost verbatim intimate scene wherein Frances asks Nick to hit her during sex, and this very same conversation is had in Normal People when Marianne asks the same of Connell.

I was a little confused by this as, though there were some differences between the two novels, I couldn’t quite tell whether Rooney’s debut was a chance at a story and Normal People was a more evolved iteration of what she had intended to accomplish the first time. Did Rooney run out of fresh material or was she really intent on exhausting what she’d already started?

There’s some element of a narrative arc, but really the primary joy of the book is the fleshy dialogues between the characters. Intimate and real, these sections capture the essence of modern love, half in-person and half interactions stolen from text and email excerpts. I enjoyed that the book was partially in an epistolary form- Sally Rooney is fabulous at representing the trials and tribulations of modern love and the way that she writes perfectly captures the frustrations of not being able to fully express what one means through a screen. Despite this, even having read Normal People, I found some of these conversations to be quite disjointed as they weren’t distinguished with speech parenthesis, as is the convention with most novels.

In summary, I enjoyed Conversations with Friends as a light-hearted, “easy read”. There were no philosophical musings to be had and this was a welcome break for me, given my recent reading material. That being said, I wasn’t bowled over by the novel and I certainly didn’t think it brought anything innovative to the table. Unlike Normal People, I wasn’t caught up thinking about it long after I’d finished the novel, either. I’m interested to see what comes next from Rooney, whether she develops a knack for delivering the same/similar story in a different package or whether there’s more variety to be unleashed as her career continues.

TV SERIES REVIEW: The Boys (SEASONS 1&2)

**This review contains spoilers so please don’t read if you’re yet to watch!**

The latest addition to my long list of “Films and TV Shows binged during the pandemic” is the Amazon Prime original “The Boys”. Now, I’ve wanted to watch this since I first got a glimpse at the promotional trailer more than a year ago. However, due to the disaster that was 2019 and various other pressing issues like post-thesis recovery and general “getting my life together”, I missed out on the initial hype and only got round to watching both seasons in the last week.

Frankly, this show is right up my street. I loved the story arcs, cinematography, direction and performances by the whole cast.

The premise is that global conglomerate Vought International nurture 200+ superheroes (their motto is “we make heroes super”). In particular, they’re renowned for the production and marketing of “The Seven”, otherwise known as “Supes”. The Supes are idealised prophets who have their faces plastered to action figurines, posters and merchandise all over America. They’re modern-day celebrities equipped with PRs and lawyers, ready to hand out the relevant NDAs whenever they cross the line (sound familiar?!). The Supes are branded as the morally-sound saviours of “we, the people”, there to intervene at every crisis. However, away from the spotlight, The Supes get up to all sorts of nasty stuff and it is left in the hands of a few individuals, with vengeance and justice on their agenda, to turn the tables.

The team consists of the costume-clad Transluscent (invisibility powers), The Deep (a man with amphibious qualities including being able to communicate with underwater creatures), Queen Maeve (super-strength), A-Train (super speed), Homelander and newcomer Starlight (channels power from natural sources). They’re beautiful posthumans with dashing smiles for the cameras and perfectly rehearsed spiel for spectators.

On the surface, the characters are nothing special. The classic tropes of superhero visuals are there, particularly in the classical visual stylisation of the All-American, omnipotent leader that is Homelander. He’s the ultimate Aryan god on earth with piercing blue eyes and meticulous blonde hair, as well as the Superman-esque physique and royal blue costume. The Wonder Woman-esque figure that is Queen Maeve serves at his side, the generic poster girl that is both powerful AND sexy. Yet the character development subverts from a lot of the traditional story arcs and instead encourages audiences to examine the behind-the-scenes toxicity of the modern day superhero culture. The show is dark, satirical and a prescient social commentary on feminism, the age of the celebrity and the corruption of the modern political landscape. Oh, and it’s also a bingeable action-packed, ultraviolent spectacle all at the same time! I definitely wish this series had been released before I handed in my thesis on the changing representations of females in action films. My chapter’s analysis on Wonder Woman and the changing evolution of her spectacle over the span of her existence sure would have been enhanced by commentary on The Boys.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

But that hasn’t stopped me picking apart the details which make this show so extraordinarily powerful as a platform for empowered heroines onscreen.

I love the way we’re shown the corrupt world of The Supes through both Hughie’s and Starlight’s perspectives. The former being a powerless everyman who has lost his girlfriend at the hands of a reckless Supe and the latter the most recent recruit to The Seven. Hughie is the average Joe we’re rooting for, under renegade Butcher’s wings and tutelage. Their fight is against the system. Meanwhile, Bible-abiding pageant girl Starlight is the naive addition to The Seven who has a lot to learn about what happens “behind the scenes”.

Newcomer Starlight’s struggle to assimilate into the team shows the extent to the Supes’ exclusivity and emphasis on “image”. She’s sexually assaulted within a day of taking her role as part of The Seven.

Then, when she saves a woman from being raped by two men in an alley way, “out of hours”, the publicity team fly off the handle. Without verifiable proof that she acted to save the woman, as it could be interpreted that the men were disturbed and attacked with no due reason. This goes to show that even in this utopian idealist world of superheroes, where Starlight is capable of lifting a car up with her own bare hands and punching through brick walls, a man’s voice is STILL more powerful, with her account of the event downplayed. In the end, it’s only because the anonymous victim comes forward to corroborate the version of events that Starlight gets the recognition she deserves for being a true heroine and stepping up to serve justice without a second glance. The result of this victory is an undignified “image change” that focuses on Starlight as a feminist icon, promoting values of empowerment. However, this also comes with a modified scanty outfit that reveals most of her legs, much to Starlight’s disdain. The PR team see this is as an ode to the liberated modern-day feminist, and the metatextual context is better still. The gender disparities are so apparent in comic books and their filmic adaptations, with women frequently presented in more revealing outfits and featured as marginal characters as opposed to key protagonists in their own right. I think this is what makes The Boys so special. Despite the misleading title, so much of the show is about “the girls”. Girls get things done!

Personally, I feel that the tone and stylistic qualities of The Boys makes it shine in a way that commercial Marvel blockbusters and DC Comic adaptations are set up to fail. The Supes are fallible and deceptive, as opposed to noble and pure. Much of their success is owed to a large team of marketing professionals who stage opportunities for intervention and plug large amounts of financial backing into the advertising campaign that contributes to the global outreach of the Supes. They’re not inherently likeable: in fact, they’re selfish, arrogant, manipulative and, in some instances, almost sociopathic. They’re not infallible: they’re jaded and broken figures in the public spotlight, and the show makes sure to show the three-dimensional aspects of their characters beyond what we’d normally see in the generic action/superhero series.

I look forward to seeing how the characters are developed further and hope that the story arcs continue to deliver some premium goods for audiences!