By Lily Brown
I finally got around to reading Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends last month. I had read Normal People in 2019 for a book club meeting and loved it, my appreciation for the characters growing deeper when watching the excellent adaptation by the BBC last year. I didn’t know whether I wanted to risk reading Conversations with Friends and risk it not living up to the same level of perfection.
Disclaimer: Although not detailed in the review, this book deals with sensitive topics such as self harm. This review will also contains spoilers.
Conversations with Friends centres on Frances, a 21-year-old student, and her friend and ex-girlfriend, Bobbi who end up befriending Melissa, a journalist writing a profile on their performance poetry. The plot progresses when Frances and Melissa’s actor husband Nick, become involved in an affair which continues during a holiday they all take to France together. I find Rooney’s writing style compelling, her books taking me only days to read whereas others would take weeks. While I didn’t quite connect with the characters of Frances, Bobbi, Nick and Melissa in the same way I did with Marianne and Connell, the way that their lives became entangled was interesting even if some of the plot points seemed improbable at times. As with Normal People, I found the inclusion of the university setting to be an interesting addition to the novel, with Frances using the library as a space for introspection.
I’ve read some criticism of Rooney’s work with reviewers saying that they find her characters unlikeable and, therefore, the books unenjoyable. However, I feel that the way Rooney is able to depict real characters complete with flaws who are also able to identify these flaws in themselves is an admirable complexity. There are times when the characters might do or say something which they regret or behave in ways that they later wish to rectify. While not exactly pretty, these moments make up parts of all of our lives and it is valuable to see them represented among the book’s pages. It also makes it harder to fit the characters into particular boxes with none of the characters fitting the hero or villain tropes perfectly.
While it would be easy to feel sorry for Melissa, Rooney reveals that she too, has been unfaithful in the past and Bobbi tells Frances that she and Melissa shared a kiss. Bobbi is portrayed as an overbearing figure at times, dominating conversations and alienating others with her opinions. As narrator, it is Frances’ thoughts and feelings we receive the most access to and her attitudes to various aspects of her life can seem confusing and misguided at times. When people ask her about future career options she responds ambivalently as though she doesn’t regard these considerations as urgent or pressing in any way. This is in stark contrast to other characters including Philip who works with Frances as an intern at a literary agency during the summer.
Another thing that I find striking is Rooney’s interweaving of important topics into her writing. There are mentions of self-harming, alcohol abuse and chronic illnesses among others in Conversations with Friends, and while some of these topics are dealt with in more depth than others their appearance in the novel may help readers to feel that they are not alone when going through similar situations. I found Frances’ endometriosis diagnosis particularly moving as she reckons with the implications of potentially not being able to have children, highlighted by her meeting Nick’s beloved niece. Endometriosis can go undiagnosed for years so I think it is very useful to include it here, to raise awareness of this long-term condition and the effects that it can have on people.
Many of these issues have no conclusion. Frances’ relationship with her father continues to worsen and his health deteriorates towards the end of the novel. The ending of the novel also leaves open a number of possibilities for Frances, Bobbi, Melissa and Nick. Frances has started getting closer to Bobbi again, although Bobbi makes it clear that she is not her girlfriend, and in the very last words of the novel Frances makes an impulsive decision to reunite with Nick. This ending indicates that nothing is final, that relationships we thought were over can be reignited and that we can move past the mistakes that we make, to make more, different mistakes while we continue to find our way.