An extramarital affair and a devastating diagnosis are the main story lines of Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations With Friends, bridged together by the whip-smart commentary of a young woman whose life is deeply affected by both.
Twenty-one year old Irish students Frances and Bobbi are best friends, former lovers, and the new pet project of well-known writer and photographer Melissa. After seeing them perform spoken-word poetry at an open-mic night, Melissa approaches the pair in hopes of writing a story about their work. Flattered by the attention and slightly intimidated by Melissa’s success, the two girls agree to the arrangement and find themselves drawn into Melissa’s exciting orbit. Frances, the more timid of the two, finds herself drawn to Melissa’s husband Nick, a B-list actor with whom she begins an affair. As their romance becomes more difficult to hide, Frances also grapples with her changing relationship with Bobbi and an endometriosis diagnosis that leaves her in constant pain and apprehensive of the future.
Conversations With Friends isn’t about likeable people. Frances is self-obsessed, and as her relationship with Nick deepens it becomes clear she has little emotional maturity. Her lack of guilt for the affair and seeming inability to admit the extent of her feelings to Nick cause her to act in brazen ways that hurt those closest to her, Bobbi in particular. Nick, who is more than ten years her senior and yet infinitely less intellectual, can’t seem to tame her youthful ignorance, causing deep rifts in their relationship taped over with physical intimacy and the excitement of doing something wrong.
Frances is a brilliantly complex leading character. Incredibly intelligent and promisingly talented, she seems to have the whole world at her fingertips. But instead of finding pleasure in the exciting opportunities thrown her way, Frances faces each new life event with a mixture of apathy and detachment. She revels in her own intellect, and yet often refuses to apply it. She frequently dwells in an unhealthy pool of self-pity, only reflecting on her own actions when forced to by those she cares most about. She is a character that epitomizes what it means to be a young adult in 2019.
In one particularly insightful passage, Frances finally digs deep down to acknowledge her emotional shortcomings, but only because Nick has expressed frustration with her behaviour:
“I wasn’t used to being attacked like this and it was frightening. I thought of myself as an independent person, so independent that the opinions of others were irrelevant to me. Now I was afraid that Nick was right: I isolated myself from criticism so I could behave badly without losing my sense of righteousness.”
Linguistically and literarily it’s a lovely passage, but in a sociological way it’s also deeply revealing of what it’s like for young people to have to face their own shortcomings in a world that so often shields them from criticism. Frances, whose apathy and ability to hide her feelings have sheltered her for so long, has suddenly been exposed to the world of people a decade older than her who won’t cater to her bullshit.
At 27, Sally Rooney is quite young to have written two very well-received books (her second novel Normal People will be available in Canada in April and was nominated for last years’ Booker Prize). But perhaps her age has been the centre of too much attention, because it is not her age that has made her such a phenom, but instead her ability to write about age, to capture the ambivalence of youth and the melancholy of becoming older. She does this by transforming her writing into the most millennial and youthful of forms: text message exchanges.
The most stimulating passages of Conversations With Friends are the short snippets of text conversations between Frances and Bobbi, whose intellectualism reads as condescending, self-absorbed, and unfailingly genuine.
Me: capitalism harnesses “love” for profit
Me: love is the discursive practice and unpaid labour is the effect
Me: but I meant, I get that, and I’m anti love as such
Bobbi: that’s vapid Frances
Bobbi: you have to do more than say you’re anti things
In these short exchanges, which appear infrequently throughout the novel, Rooney strikes at the core of what it is to be young. She explores how easily students get lost in the current a-la-mode ideologies and use them in manipulative, misguided ways, but also how wholeheartedly they believe in what they’re saying and doing. Frances assumes her actions can’t hurt Nick because he is a man, and Bobbi because she is rich, but fails to recognize that both people, regardless of their status in life and the current political climate, are only human.
As Frances comes to terms with her illness, she in many ways begins to soften around the edges. It forces her to reconsider things like intimacy, family, religion and self-perception. She starts to adapt to her new situation and late in the book we see a new side of her for the first time, although it’s hard to know if the changes will stick. It’s refreshing to see a writer take on endometriosis and weave it into a story without making it the only thing that matters. It’s a common, thought deeply painful and debilitating illness, and it’s interesting to see how Frances’ life changes and yet also goes on as she learns to live with it.
Conversations With Friends will greatly appeal to anyone who enjoyed My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh or Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. It’s a highly entertaining and beautifully written novel for the modern age.
Disclaimer: I have attached a purchase link for Conversations With Friends below. This link is part of my affiliate account with Amazon, and if you make a purchase I will receive a small commission.