Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

When you’re twenty-one years old, you think you’ve got relationships down – you’re not as susceptible to shallow or fleeting infatuations (or rather, you accept infatuations for what they are – shallow and fleeting); you’ve probably had you’re heart-broken; you ‘know what you want’ and ‘commitment’ seems a reasonable proposition. But actually, there’s still a lot to learn on the relationship front. A lot. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney demonstrates exactly that.

Frances is 21 – a university student, aspiring writer, idealistic, and aloof. Her best-friend Bobbi, is charismatic, opinionated and beautiful. Once lovers, the two women now perform poetry together. They’re discovered by Melissa, an established writer in her mid-30s, and are quickly drawn into Melissa’s world, impressed by her sophistication, her beautiful home and her handsome actor husband, Nick.

I had wanted Melissa to take an interest in me, because we were both writers, but instead she didn’t seem to like me and I wasn’t sure I liked her. I didn’t have the option not to take her seriously, because she had published a book, which proved that lots of other people took her seriously even if I didn’t. At twenty-one, I had no achievements or possessions that proved I was a serious person.

But it is Bobbi that Melissa favours, leaving Frances to embark on an affair with Nick. The novel charts the months that follow, exposing the challenges in the overlapping but unequal relationships between the four.

Frances and Bobbi are all puffed-up-intelligence and ideals, but they’re also naive. Or maybe thoughtless. Or self-righteous. Or maybe I’ve just forgotten what it’s like to be 21 – either way, Rooney doesn’t try to garner sympathy for her characters, allowing the reader to feel quite okay about not liking them much at all. That said, there’s lots to love about this book – start with Rooney’s excellent dialogue (I’ll overlook the lack of punctuation) and staccato delivery  –

Over summer I missed periods of intense academic concentration which helped to relax me during term time. I liked to sit in the library to write essays, allowing my sense of time and personal identity to dissolve as the light dimmed outside the windows. I would open fifteen tabs on my web browser while producing phrases like ‘epistemic rearticulation’ and ‘operant discursive practices’. I mostly forgot to eat on days like this, and emerged in the evening with a fine, shrill headache.

What is particularly interesting in this story is that Rooney examines infidelity from multiple angles, predominantly without judgement.  She explores the motivation for the affair – Frances gives in to desire, obtaining what she thought she couldn’t have and assumes Nick’s motivation is the same. However, as the story progresses you discover that there are far more complex emotions at play.

I thought bitterly: he has all the power and I have none. This wasn’t exactly true, but that night it was clear to me for the first time how badly I’d underestimated my vulnerability.

3.5/5 At face value, light, but there’s more lurking beneath. I’ll be reading Rooney again.

I received my copy of Conversations with Friends from the publisher, Faber & Faber, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

He and Evelyn discussed what kind of dessert would be least likely to cause an argument, and decided on something expensive with a lot of glazed strawberries.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 6): Belfast 14°-21° and Melbourne 6°-14°.





12 responses

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  2. When I first started this novel I didn’t think I was going to get on with it but it grew on me the more I read and has stayed with me some months later. I think your description of Frances and Bobbi is spot on. I’d like to think my own puffed-upness was at its worst in my teenage years but I think I may be airbrushing a little there!

    • There’s a stage, isn’t there, where you’re old enough to have opinions about all sorts of things – some of them reasonably well-informed, but not old enough to have LIVED those opinions – Frances and Bobbi had lots of thoughts about politics, society, and how people should live and yet, both were being funded by their parents!

      Will be interested to see what Rooney writes about next.

  3. A thoughtful and detailed review. I enjoyed it and might even enjoy the book. I remember 21, just! It was a long time ago. In the intervening years I’ve learnt a lot about marriages, but not much about (romantic) relationships, they (or I) don’t seem to change much.

    • Thanks Bill! We probably never learn all that we should (or rather, avoid making the same mistakes) when it comes to relationships but I do know that if I had carried on with relationships I had at age 21, my life would have been very different (and not in good way!).

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