Title: Conversations with Friends (2017)
Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Read: 20th – 22nd June 2017
Genre: contemporary; adult
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Set in modern-day Dublin, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends ostensibly tells the tale of Frances and Bobbi, ex-girlfriends and spoken word poets who find themselves befriending photographer/journalist Melissa and her actor husband Nick and setting in motion a chain of events as they become embroiled with the couple’s social lives and they with theirs. If you like books that are focused on the complicated relationships people can become entangled in, despite their better judgment, then Conversations with Friends is one for you.
Frances, Bobbi, Nick and Melissa ask each other endless questions. As their relationships unfold, in person and online, they discuss sex and friendship, art and literature, politics and gender, and, of course, one another. Twenty-one-year-old Frances is at the heart of it all, bringing us this tale of a complex ménage-à-quatre and her affair with Nick, an older married man. You can read Conversations with Friends as a romantic comedy, or you can read it as a feminist text. You can read it as a book about infidelity, about the pleasures and difficulties of intimacy, or about how our minds think about our bodies. However you choose to read it, it is an unforgettable novel about the possibility of love. (Synopsis taken from publisher’s website)
“I paid so much attention to myself that everything I experienced came to seem like a symptom.”
I will be honest upfront – I appreciated the craft in this debut novel but this was not a book for me, I just don’t get the fuss surrounding it and I don’t think it’s all that darkly witty or exquisitely alive, as the marketing would have me believe. Was it an easy read? Yes, absolutely, the writing style was simple enough to follow and I devoured it in two days. Did I enjoy the book whilst it lasted? Yes, I suppose. Will I remember this book in weeks to come? To be brutally honest, probably not.
“At twenty-one, I had no achievements or possessions that proved I was a serious person.”
I am not too far dissimilar to the novel’s protagonist, Frances, on paper – I’m of a similar age, I went to university, and I too am probably of this “seminal” age in terms of my life. Even so, for me, the large problem in Conversation with Friends lays in the choice of Frances as a narrator. She sees herself as ironic and cool-headed, some might say cold and detached, to the point of seeming unconcerned about the events that are happening to her. At times, this works well – for example, it is easy to see Frances’ attempts at suppressing any feelings or emotions she might be having (or perhaps not having at all) for Nick, but on other occasions it simply prevents a reader from empathising with her or rooting for her character at all. The sex scenes between them, for me, were excruciating to read because they were so stilted and not in any way even fleetingly intimate. Yet I was told by Frances that sometimes they were passionate and that she enjoyed sex with Nick – I saw no evidence of that or, at least, Frances was incapable of expressing it to readers. And I’m not entirely sure she was as unaffected as she made out. I have read books with unlikable protagonists and narrators alike and, despite this biased account of the story, I have always managed to take some kind of joy in reading from their perspective all the same. Sadly, for me, this wasn’t the case with Frances – she goes through some pretty horrifying personal and medical issues but all are told in her clinically detached voice and so, if she doesn’t care, why should a reader?
“Now that he wasn’t paying attention to me, I could watch him more closely. He really was exceptionally handsome. I wonder if people just got used to being so good-looking and eventually found it boring, but it was hard to imagine.”
I liked Nick. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did. Maybe it says something psychologically about me that I liked him best when he was being a little bit pathetic or cowardly? Or when he snarked at Frances with something glib, but also very accurate, about their relationship. (See: “Who? he said. The one who isn’t interested in me any more, or the one who’s just using me for sex?”) Perhaps this is Sally Rooney’s entire intention and I fell right into that trap, just as Frances did. Their conversations admittedly are quite funny and engaging. But we are never truly allowed to get to understand Nick, or his morality, or his decisions, because we see him through Frances’ eyes, and she isn’t the most unbiased mediator. Everything he does or says is reported by her, but Sally Rooney never lets the reader know whether Frances’ judgment of him is accurate or not, so we must draw our own conclusions. When it came down to it, I even liked Nick’s wife Melissa, despite Frances’ half-hearted attempts later in the novel to subtly portray her as some kind of cold, negligent wife who was jealous of Nick’s affair with a much-younger woman, much to Melissa’s convincing protestations that she is not jealous in the least.
“I was aware of the fact that he could pretend to be anyone he wanted to be, and I wondered if he also lacked a ‘real personality’ the same way I did.”
Even Bobbi felt incomplete, I never truly saw her as a fleshed out character and part of that is due to Frances’ viewpoint – though her best friend and ex-girlfriend alike, she still felt distant somehow. You can never truly know another person inside and out because you can’t be in their head – this is a fact, it’s accurate to life, but it’s also intensely frustrating to a reader trying to figure out a character. I don’t feel like I particularly knew Bobbi (or even Frances) any better by the time I reached the end of the book. Likewise, close relatives of Frances (i.e. her own mother and father) felt distant and shadowy figures, not quite fully formed characters for the reader, and a potentially intriguing plotline concerning her father’s personal issues was never focused on. Instead, Conversations with Friends was a completely self-absorbed story about Frances’ dramatic inner turmoil that actually wasn’t all that turbulent, or at least not anywhere near as turbulent as it could/should have been to a narrator who wasn’t quite as flat and (attempting to be) apathetic about her own life.
“In a way I was appalled too, but also fascinated. Before that summer I’d had no idea I was the kind of person who would accept an invitation like this from a woman whose husband I’d repeatedly slept with. This information was morbidly interesting to me.”
Ultimately, I felt that this book didn’t go anywhere – there were no big climactic moments and the book just seemed to trundle on in a flat trajectory, there weren’t really peaks and troughs to the experience. That isn’t to say that there weren’t events within the narrative that were dramatic – quite the contrary, in fact, several plot points are very dramatic, but they are all told in that same self-absorbed, but emotionally detached, narrative voice. Rooney writes in a firmly tell-don’t-show manner, but the problem is that her vehicle for “telling” reports all of her conversations with friends in such a disengaged way that I was never sure I was being told anything of real value.
“I read his email again and again while I tried to decide. On one reading it might give an impression of devotion and acquiescence, and on another it appeared indecisive or ambivalent. I didn’t know what I wanted from him.”
Perhaps that is the entire point of the book; it proves that life doesn’t have a dramatic rise-and-fall storybook trajectory in which the story closes on the last page of the book with a definitive happy (or sad) ending, all wrapped up nice and neatly with a bow on top. This book ended without actually giving any sense of closure; if anything, the ending suggests a cyclical and (probably) self-destructive trajectory of these characters. They don’t go anywhere because they’re still there, doing the same things, despite anyone’s better judgment… because life is like that, and if we as people don’t always learn from our mistakes, then why should we require a book’s protagonist to do so? Why should an author be duty bound to make us like (or even just empathise with) their protagonist – and is it wrong to expect that from an author and their work? Despite all this, at the end of the day, I have questions, not answers, from this book and, because of that, Conversations with Friends feels unfinished and, for me, a little unsatisfying to read.
“Things and people moved around me, taking positions in obscure hierarchies, participating in systems I didn’t know about and never would. A complex network of objects and concepts. You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.”
If you would like to pick up a copy of Conversations with Friends, it is out now in any place that sells books and online – see the publisher’s website for more details. Thank you to Faber & Faber for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via Netgallery, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles.
The quotes above were taken from the eARC copy of the novel – this may be subject to change and differ from the published text of the novel.