Book Review: Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
by Juliet Garcia
In less than two years Sally Rooney, the 27 year-old novelist from Dublin, has become a literary sensation, extolled for her confident, frank style and agile observations about the pains of growing up. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was published in 2017 and was written in just three months, alongside precariously balancing a master’s degree in American literature. This was swiftly succeeded by Normal People, which similarly follows the subtle cruelties involved in human interactions through the eyes of two scholarship students at Trinity College.
I came to Conversations with Friends somewhat late to the party with the cynical trepidation that it was impossible it could live up to its exalted reputation. The beaming yellow cover, with silhouettes of a couple reclining on sun chairs in the intense heat of a French summer, only amplified this feeling as I turned the first page in the cold of mid-December. However, I soon found myself compulsively immersed in the intelligent, vividly realistic conversations that are its self-proclaimed specialism. Rooney forgoes speech marks and instead we have a constant flow of verbal quips, theories, debates about whether capitalism poisons love, e-mails pervaded by flirtatious exchanges, restrained small talk, and the protective sheen of unfeeling irony that the protagonist wraps around her words.
The story centres on twenty-one-year old Literature student Frances, who, alongside her ex-girlfriend and best friend Bobbi, spends her summer break performing at spoken word events around Dublin’s artistic venues. During an open-mike night, the pair meet Melissa, an accomplished writer and photographer who is in her thirties, and are invited back to her comfortable and expensive home for a nightcap. Melissa effortlessly slips into an infatuation with Bobbi’s beauty and bold, anarchic conversations, even though in reality Frances is the one who writes all the poetry that they perform.
Rooney writes about what it’s like to be at an age when you feel that you both know everything and nothing at all.
Excluded and feeling inferior, Frances decides to dislike Melissa; instead she talks to Melissa’s handsome, flinty husband who is an actor that never really made it. Nick is exactly the sort of man that Bobbi disdains and her general distaste towards men is made clear from the outset when Frances describes how after their shows when male performers approach them “Bobbi would always pointedly exhale and say nothing,” leaving Frances to soothe their egos with amicability. Yet despite her acknowledgement that Nick’s brooding manliness and Google image results of his shirtless film shots are the sort of thing they’d snicker at in private, Frances finds herself drawn to him as an ally in their mutual neglect.
The morning after, Melissa e-mails asking if she can interview Frances and Bobbi as a profile for a local cultural publication, praising them as an up-and-coming duo on the spoken word scene. The two friends quickly become entangled with this married couple, attending dinner parties at their house and holidaying with them in the South of France. To complicate matters further, Frances—ever the sardonic non-conventionalist who has disciplined herself never to feel too much—is appalled to find herself not only having an affair with Nick but falling in love with him.
What is so beautiful about the novel is how it displays the bitter ironies of being a university student. Frances is able to espouse radical politics with erudite arguments and keep pace with highbrow discussion, yet is immobilised by the strength of her own feelings, often hopelessly naïve in her inability to express what emotionally affects her. When she has sex with Nick—her first time being intimate with a man—Frances finds that the ironic tone used to deflect the world around her from getting too close is suddenly gone. In its place comes terrifying inarticulacy, “only syllables, no real words”, and throughout the book she will remain embarrassed by these spontaneous sounds that she can never fully suppress.
Whilst Rooney’s plot might be simple, her characters are complicated; rather a two-dimensional hunk, Nick is sensitive and kind, trying to treat Frances with respect in what is a difficult situation for them both. Nick suffers with clinical depression and we are told that last year he was hospitalised when his illness became particularly unmanageable. Rather than rigid ideology, Rooney deals in moral ambiguity, depicting how though Melissa has had previous affairs of her own, Nick still feels unable to shake his guilt. Furthermore, even though his behaviour towards Frances is often of tender affection—sending her articles he thinks she might like or bringing baskets of food to her apartment—he is still very much in love with his wife.
Aside from the central romance, Conversations with Friends occasions many other contradictions and the fact that these feel so starkly real attests to Rooney’s power as a psychological portraitist. Though Frances studies at a prestigious university and treats her internship at a literary agency with blasé carelessness, committed to the principle that a disinterest in wealth is “ideologically healthy”, we see her struggle with money. Her alcoholic father barely appears in the novel but when he irresponsibly stops sending Frances her allowance, she becomes unable to even eat and has her card declined at the supermarket. Through her relationship with money, Frances is again poised on a border; she is an economic outsider to Bobbi’s financial stability and the glittering, middle-class house belonging to Nick and Melissa.
The most important relationship in Conversations with Friends that cannot go unmentioned is between Frances and Bobbi. Despite being told that the two have been inseparable ever since the rebellious Bobbi offered Frances a swig from her vodka at prom, we see the two together less than might be expected. The ex-lovers drift apart as Frances become withdrawn and secretive, further harming the tensions between them when she publishes a story that implicitly shows her absorbing love for Bobbi without informing her muse.
“You think everyone you like is special,” Bobbi tells Frances angrily, frustrated at Frances’ refusal to believe that Bobbi is subject to the same self-doubts and elations as herself. Frances’ awe of Bobbi and her delusional belief that in their interactions she is the one lacking power blinds Frances; she is unable to recognise that her actions have the ability to punctuate Bobbi, who feels deeply betrayed by having to find out Frances’ feelings only through a publicly published story. Similarly, Frances’ callous throwaway comments to Nick, insistent on maintaining the façade that their relationship is not to be taken seriously, fails to take into account that he too is fragile.
The luminous moments of compassion that enter the last parts of the novel, of coming to terms with and accepting the sorts of emotions that threaten to wrench you apart, are not so much millennial as a timeless capturing of what it is to grow up.
Most of the reviews and interviews I have read call Rooney a millennial writer, claiming that she is the novelist of a social media generation. I am not sure how readily I would agree with this given the disparaging way that ‘millennial’ is often invoked, but what Rooney does do brilliantly is write about what it’s like to be at an age when you feel that you both know everything and nothing at all. The luminous moments of compassion that enter the last parts of the novel, of coming to terms with and accepting the sorts of emotions that threaten to wrench you apart, are not so much millennial as a timeless capturing of what it is to grow up.
The transfixing intimacy that exists between Frances and Bobbi by the end of the novel, uninhibited by labels or demands, as well as the carpark scene which is Conversations with Friends’ emotional climax, brings us finally to a more open sense of the word love than we had at the start, one of Rooney’s own making and able to embrace life’s moral complexities.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney is widely available, and can be purchased here.
Juliet is a lover of women's writing and mint tea, currently in her final year studying English Literature at Oxford University. Her current research project is a dissertation looking at Victorian masculinity and drug-addiction, and she can be found either frequenting coffee shops or returning home to Bristol for much-anticipated reunions with her dog.
Image credit: Amazon and Waterstones. No copyright infringement intended.
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