Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Conversations with Friends by Sally RooneyA lot of reviewers seem to want to say good things about this book, maybe because it’s good. However, one may find it a little shallow and at times unconvincing. Some have. And not unfairly. However, it has subtleties. And it is engaging. I’m not sure of an “easy read” is necessarily an accolade – but it should be: this is well written, well plotted, well structured: the prose bounces along as though it just fellonto the page through no effort at all, wchih might well be the mark of great prose.

“Rooney has said that she wrote the bulk of “Conversations with Friends” in three months—there’s that flow for you—and her book has the virtues of that speed with surprisingly few of its faults. Perhaps as a result of such swift execution, the novel gave me the curious feeling that Rooney wasn’t always sure where she was going but that she trusted herself to find out. She writes with a rare, thrilling confidence, in a lucid and exacting style uncluttered with the sort of steroidal imagery and strobe flashes of figurative language that so many dutifully literary novelists employ. This isn’t to say that the novel lacks beauty. Its richness blooms quietly…”

“Rooney writes so well of the condition of being a young, gifted but self-destructive woman, both the mentality and physicality of it. She is alert to the invisible bars imprisoning the apparently free. Though herself young – she was born in 1991 – she has already been shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times EFG short story award. Her hyperarticulate characters may fail to communicate their fragile selves, but Rooney does it for them in a voice distinctively her own.”

“The blandness of Sally Rooney’s novels, last year’s Conversations with Friends and her new one, Normal People, begins and ends with those oddly non-committal titles. Inside the books her territory is classic – the love relationships of young people – but mapped with an unusual scrupulous smoothness. The characters are brainy, even startlingly so, but she doesn’t exalt their intelligence or flaunt her own.”

““The great millennial novelist”—the mantle has been thrust, by Boomers and Gen Xers alike, upon the Irish writer Sally Rooney, whose two carefully observed and gentle comedies of manners both appeared before her twenty-eighth birthday. With this mantle have come prizes and money. Nearly every review has mentioned at least the prizes.

“Cozy in scope and romantic in spirit, the novels are mild and tender portraits of Irish college students in the recent present. In the first, Conversations with Friends, Frances and Bobbi, two best friends in their early twenties who used to date and occasionally sleep together, fall for Nick and Melissa, a couple in their thirties. Frances begins an affair with Nick, threatening her relationship with Bobbi and allowing her to find some independence.”

“A subtle and thought-provoking book, Conversations with Friends tells the tale of twenty-one year old aspiring writer Frances and former girlfriend Bobbi who now perform spoken word poetry together in Dublin. They soon meet enigmatic older couple, photographer and essayist Melissa, who takes an interest in Bobbi and Frances and wants to write a piece about them, and her tall, dark and handsome husband, Nick, a bored actor who quickly enters into a flirtation with Frances. When Frances finds herself kissing Nick at a party, the pair begin a complicated affair and set in motion a chain of events that sees the two young poets enter into a sophisticated world of expensive houses and holidays in France, a world away from their own reality. A time of tumult for Frances ensues. She’s beguiled by Melissa and Nick’s financial stability, though she identifies as a communist; she’s unwilling to make any plans for the future or enter the workforce; and she struggles with issues with her body and her difficult and irresponsible father.

“While the cast of characters are deeply flawed and often unlikeable, together they make for engaging reading, and with a pacy and prose-rich plot Rooney delivers an unputdownable book from start to finish. As a story it explores the complexities of female friendships, privilege and romantic relationships, and the author’s writing is both raw and refreshing. The Dublin setting offers the perfect backdrop to the cast of creative characters and the tale itself is introspective and literary yet highly accessible, and enthralling and unpredictable throughout.”

But not all positive…

“The key to Sally Rooney’s debut novel is hidden in plain sight. It’s in the title: Conversations with Friends. While on the surface this is a sharp, contemporary take on the bourgeois social novel, the stuff of marriage, betrayal and touchy dinner parties, there are no dramatic set-pieces – no car crashes, no unlocked email accounts, no catching them at it in the library. Instead feelings emerge and are appraised in speech. “He was the first person I had met since Bobbi who made me enjoy conversation, in the same irrational and sensuous way I enjoyed coffee or loud music,” says the narrator, Frances, a 21-year-old performance poet and student who falls in love with a wealthy actor 11 years her senior. Who also happens to be married.

“The dynamic is complicated in all sorts of ways. For one, Frances’s last (and only) relationship was with a woman, Bobbi, her anarchist (also wealthy) best friend from school. For another, the actor isn’t everything he appears to be. He’s “handsome”, we’re told, “to an almost off-putting extent.” In fact, by my reckoning Nick is referred to as “handsome” at least 11 further times in the novel, whether pointedly to objectify him or as an editorial oversight is never quite clear.

“Despite this tired marker of male impressiveness, not everything is golden for Nick. He has recently emerged from a psychiatric institution. He is passive, jaded, often depressed. By his wife Melissa’s own admission: “I’ve become so used to seeing him as pathetic and even contemptible that I forgot anybody else could love him.”

“Not that Frances has it any easier. Throughout the book she endures a litany of woes – with her father, her health, her finances – creating a situation in which nobody can fault her or old sad sack Nick for attempting to squeeze whatever joy they can from their infatuation. It’s possibly the most blameless affair in literature. Even Melissa, the cuckolded wife, more or less agrees. “I once slept with another woman at a literary festival,” she explains to Frances and Bobbi, “then several years later, while Nick was in psychiatric hospital, began an affair with his best friend, which continued even after Nick found out.”

“It’s a lot to take in and understandably, Frances struggles with it. She’s new to all this, after all. Hers is the perspective of a Holden Caulfield or Jane Eyre, the narrator from a bildungsroman trying to keep cool after winding up in the realm of Edith Wharton or James Salter. The mid-section of the book – which takes place among the lakes, holiday homes and bounteous picnic spots of northern France – is particularly Salterian, with sprinkles of lyrical Joyce thrown in. “The clouds were green and the stars reminded me of sugar,” Frances thinks. “His heart continued to beat like an excited or miserable clock,” she says of Nick.

“This is another key point: Conversations is an Irish novel that has very little to say about nationalism or the Church. In 1942 the short-story writer Frank O’Connor claimed it would be impossible to write a social novel set in Ireland. In that sense, Rooney has defied the odds.

“The language of commerce, so often deployed to analyse power dynamics in relationships – “I didn’t think you’d let someone take advantage of you like that,” says Philip, a friend; “He was exploiting my tender feelings for him,” Frances reflects – proves inadequate when the reality being described becomes so messy and protracted. There is no final verdict, no guilty and innocent, no strong and weak, and it’s in conversation, in the book’s continual flow of dialogue, that the layers of complexity build and shade into grey.

“But that’s also where problems emerge: the conversation doesn’t go far enough. The recriminations that pass between Nick and Frances, Frances and Bobbi, Frances and Melissa, wind up feeling pale and repetitive, not quite the zeitgeisty shitstorm we’d begun to expect. Despite the regularity with which we are assured of Frances and Bobbi’s progressive credentials, men are still from Mars; women from Venus.

“Take the depiction of Nick: at first, he’s too macho (which is bad); later, he’s weak and effeminate (also bad). He does little more than shrug and agree with the women around him, making him “pathologically submissive” according to his wife, a barb he, of course, accepts. He should probably have come down from his crucifix – for the sake both of those who suffer his company and the vitality of the novel as a whole. But straw men don’t tend to have much life in them. At least he’s handsome.”



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