It’s hard for me not to hate novelist Sally Rooney a little bit out of sheer jealously. Not only is she super young (she’s a mere 26) AND a published author, but her first novel is excellent and well received. However, I absolutely adored Conversations with Friends, and the flawed but sympathetic characters inside make Rooney seem like someone who’d be fun to hang out with (even if she’s annoyingly accomplished).
This novel focuses on the complications that occur in relationships between people, both romantic and platonic. Bobbi and Frances are two college students at Trinity College in Dublin; they are part of a spoken word poetry duo as well as best friends and former flames. Their act draws the attention of Melissa, an older successful writer and photographer, who profiles the duo and quickly accepts them into her circle of friends. Bobbi is immediately smitten with the intelligent and enigmatic Melissa, but Francis develops feelings for her “trophy” husband, Nick, a handsome but unsuccessful actor. When Francis and Nick begin a secret affair, it has consequences for her friendship with Bobbi.
Francis, who is the writer part of the poetry duo, is the narrator of the book. As a character, she’s both self-destructive and sympathetic. The college-age version of me related immensely to her. She’s smart, idealistic, and self-righteous, but doesn’t quite know how to incorporate her ideologies into everyday life. Francis identifies as a communist and tries to subsist on the smallest income possible. However, her everyday life is still funded by an allowance paid for by her alcoholic father; an arrangement she feels immensely guilty about because her monetary ties prevent her from confronting him about his addiction. Francis also suffers from severe menstrual cramps, but initially refuses to seek help because “everybody suffers”.
Miscommunication is a daily theme in Francis’s life. As a writer, she is much more comfortable in written conversations like emails or text messages than face to face interactions. She often takes on a cold and aloof air because she is too afraid of revealing her actual feelings. In Francis’s own mind she’s too insignificant to hurt anyone she loves, but then acts out in ways that causes her to hurt those closest to her. Bobbi perfectly sums up Francis’s major problem in relationships:
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.
None of the relationships in the book play out in the way you expect them to, and Rooney does a great job of subverting some common relationship clichés. Even though Nick is older and married, he’s not played like a villain in his relationship with Francis. Instead, Nick is an incredibly passive character. Francis does most of the pursing of his character, though he is tender towards her throughout the book. Likewise, Bobbi comes off initially as a tough and unflappable character. She’s the one who broke up with Francis when they were a pair. However, she is still hurt by Francis’s relationship with Nick.
This book has a literary bent to it, but is still lots of fun and quick read. I practically couldn’t put it down once I started it; highly recommended for fans of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels!