Particularly since finishing Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, I had been eager to pick up her debut, Conversations with Friends. The novel, which is set in Dublin and rural France, follows four friends – students Frances and Bobbi, and married couple Nick and Melissa – ‘who ask each other endless questions’. The conversations between the four take place both in person and online, and cover myriad topics – ‘sex and friendship, art and literature, politics and gender, and, of course, one another.’
The novel’s blurb suggests that Rooney’s book can be read in any number of ways: as a romantic comedy, as a feminist work, as something which exposes both intimacy and infidelity, or with regard to the way in which our minds consider and place our physical bodies. It has been highly praised by critics since its publication in 2017; Sara Baume calls it ‘a novel of spine-tingling salience’, and Gavin Corbett ‘an essential read from an astonishing new talent’. Colin Barrett compares Rooney to both J.D. Salinger and Bret Easton Ellis.
Conversations with Friends is narrated by Frances, a young woman who has just completed her third year at University in Dublin. Bobbi has been her best friend since the pair met at the strict convent school which they attended. At the outset of the novel, after a poetry reading, Frances and Bobbi have been invited to writer and photographer Melissa’s home; at this point, she tells us: ‘I was excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s house, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming.’ At the house, they meet Nick, who they already knew was an actor: ‘He and Melissa were frequently photographed together at events and we had friends of friends who had met them. He had a big, handsome face and looked like he could comfortably pick Melissa up under one arm and fend off interlopers with the other.’
Frances and Nick strike up a secretive email conversation after their first meeting, and then, later on, share a kiss at a party. Before this moment occurs, Rooney writes: ‘Eventually Nick looked over and I looked back. I felt a key turning hard inside my body, turning so forcefully that I could do nothing to stop it. His lips parted like he was about to say something, but he just inhaled and then seemed to swallow. Neither of us gestured or waved, we just looked at one another, as if we were already having a private conversation that couldn’t be overhead.’
The pair soon embark upon an affair, meeting up as often as possible in Frances’ flat, or Nick’s home when Melissa is absent. Rooney hones in on the emotional conflict which this creates. When Frances first sleeps with Nick, for instance, she writes: ‘Little tears had started slipping out of my eyes and down onto the pillow. I wasn’t sad, I didn’t know why I was crying. I’d had this problem before, with Bobbi, who believed it was an expression of my repressed feelings. I couldn’t stop the tears so I just laughed self-effacingly instead, to show that I wasn’t invested in the crying. I knew I was embarrassing myself badly, but there was nothing I could do about it.’
I found Frances to be a lifelike character. She is built of quirks and complexities, and is all the more recognisable for it: ‘I felt restless, the way you feel when you’ve already done the wrong thing and you’re anxious about what the outcome to be.’ She has a lot to deal with in her life – an alcoholic father, a mother who lives rather far away, and whom she does not see very often, and a diminishing sense of self-worth – and her responses to different situations feel authentic. She is, throughout, coming to terms with herself and her future, which she has absolutely no plans for. I found her an amusing construct, and, at times, quite admirable in her beliefs, and the way in which she voices them.
The title is a little misleading, in that not all of Rooney’s characters could be classified as friends. Bobbi and Nick do not even pretend to get on with one another, and Frances and Melissa are both hideously jealous of one another at points. Frances even has a waveringly negative opinion of Bobbi, who is the only constant character who is there for her in the novel. At the outset, she reflects that at school: ‘Nobody liked her. She got temporarily suspended once for writing “Fuck the patriarchy” on the wall beside a plaster cast of the crucifixion.’ After the two become a couple, and then amicably split up, they remain firm friends, moving to Dublin together for University.
As with Normal People, I got a feel for the quite complex and realistic characters immediately. I found Frances particularly fascinating, and could never quite guess what she was going to do next; there were psychological depths to her character. The others, however, did not pique my interest anywhere near as much as Frances did. What I found most interesting was the way in which they interacted, and the ways in which their relationships with one another changed so dramatically as the novel went on. Rooney has built a lot of tension between her characters, and it feels as though she completely understands them, and their motives.
As one might expect, the novel is almost saturated in different forms of conversation. The relationships between the four characters play out through different mediums – instant messaging, text messaging, in person, or through messages sent between two characters by an interlocutor. This element could so easily have been overdone, but I felt as though Frances’ narrative voice pulls everything together well.
In Conversations with Friends, Rooney explores so many topics: masculinity, sexuality, youth, naivety, (in)experience, relationships, and growing up, amongst others. It is a rich novel, which offers a lot to draw upon and consider. Many of the scenes which Rooney has constructed are emotionally charged, particularly when Nick and Frances’ affair comes to a head. In some ways, the novel has a different feel to it than Normal People; it is sadder at times, and feels a little more serious, even pretentious. Whilst I found the novel compelling, Conversations with Friends was not a compulsive read for me, as I found Normal People to be.