Recent Reading: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

by Sunita

I still have three Booker novels to finish and review, but in the meantime I thought I’d post about other books I’ve been reading (yes, I do read books that are not on awards longlists!). I read this one because it was in my TBR from last year and it seemed helpful to read it before going on to Normal People. I liked it better than the latter, although I think Normal People is probably the better book in terms of execution.

Rooney’s debut novel has been wildly praised and hyped. She has been called the voice of her generation, and her agent’s coining of the phrase “Salinger of the Snapchat generation” has been repeated approvingly. With the praise and hype has come the inevitable backlash. When I sat down with the novel I tried to shut out the noise and concentrate on the pages in front of me. And mostly it worked. It’s very much a debut novel, but it’s quite assured, and Rooney definitely has a distinctive voice.

The plot/storyline is very basic: Undergraduates Frances (our narrator) and her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi fall in with a rich, glamorous married couple in their 30s. Nick is an actor, Melissa is a journalist and writer. Bobbi is drawn to Melissa, Frances to Nick. They socialize , run into each other at professional and art events, and spend time in France together. Nick and Melissa’s marriage is complicated, and so are the four characters’ relationships with each other (in pairs and multiples).

The novel is made up of extremely familiar themes and characters:

  1. The older man-younger woman relationship, with the older man being married. Points for Nick not being a professor, even though this is set at college.
  2. The intense female friendship (IFF), which has become a thematic cottage industry for women writers in the last couple of decades.
  3. The coming-of-age novel, set at university. This never ever gets old, apparently, because every cohort comes of age and many of them either do it at college or find college interesting. And enough older cohorts want to read about it across the ages.

The familiar themes are given interesting twists. Nick is the least assertive and confident of the quartet, and while Frances never feels she has the upper hand, that’s not clear to the reader. Their relationship seems mostly apathetic and passive as I was reading, but by the end I did feel they had built some kind of genuine emotional connection.

Frances and Bobbi’s storyline is very much in the now-standard IFF mold, but they have their previous love affair and ongoing passion for each other to complicate it. This storyline felt the most familiar to me: if you’ve read Marlena, or The Animators, you’ve seen this play out, and in the latter case in a more interesting way. For some reason the IFF novel’s narrator is always portrayed as the less interesting, less charismatic, less successful one, even though in the end she has a more “successful” life. That happens here too; at least there are twists in the later parts of the story where Frances gets more of what she wants than Bobbi does.

The coming-of-age-at-university aspect is saved by Rooney’s voice, because there is nothing universal about these characters. They are middle-class to extremely affluent undergraduates who don’t have to work to get through school (yes, Frances has a scholarship, but she also has a stipend from her otherwise very screwed up father and free use of a family flat). Indeed, when Frances finally gets a 3-hour-per-weekday job, she hides it from her friends and finds it beyond exhausting. Her circle publicly acknowledges their privilege, but they do absolutely nothing to offset that privilege, either through work, artistic creation, or activism. They call themselves “communitarian anarchists,” communists, and other labels which have nothing behind them that the reader can see. Frances considers herself poor because she’s not as rich as Bobbi, Nick, and Melissa, and this definition of poverty is uncritically accepted by those around her. Her ultimate decision to tell Bobbi about her barista job is presented as something of a moral milestone in the text.

Nevertheless, as someone who spends a lot of time around affluent college and university students, I think that Rooney nails this niche category of young people very well, and she especially captures the anomic context of their lives and the alienation it creates in some of them. Everything they do is about themselves, including their poetry, their writing, and their undergraduate training. I’ve read reviews which describe the characters as unlikable or awful, but I didn’t find them so. I never really understood why these specific characters are so lacking in agency; plenty of young people find things about which to be passionate, and even more don’t have the luxury of acting on their alienation. But Rooney does an excellent job of showing how they are passive and detached. Maybe in later novels she’ll pay more attention to the “why.”

The sole narrator is Frances and the story is told in 1st POV, past tense. The tone is flat and affectless, and Frances continually interrogates her own attitudes and behavior. She’s not clueless, but she doesn’t change her behavior after she understands why it is flawed, cruel, or wrong, until the very end. She has a mini-revelation about herself, which leads to events that make her about as happy as she seems capable of being. Frances narrates and observes everything at the same pitch, from putting on a t-shirt to having enjoyable sex with Nick.

And for me, it mostly worked. The writing falls flat occasionally; I have no idea what it means to say “the sky had thinned out into a soft, lipless blue,” or what the Liffey River is supposed to look like when it’s “swollen up and irritated.” But at other times she nails it, such as when Bobbi tells Frances,

You underestimate your own power so you don’t have to blame yourself for treating other people badly. You tell yourself stories about it. Oh well, Bobbi’s rich, Nick’s a man, I can’t hurt these people. If anything they’re out to hurt me and I’m defending myself.”

I can totally see why the world Rooney creates has resonated so strongly for some readers. And I can also see how the novel is annoying and over-hyped for others. I am not the target audience at all, but Rooney has accomplished something here. There are authors who have pulled off one or more of the themes better, but not all three (or four). And the voice, as I said, is singular.

3 stars at Goodreads.