Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed, and darkly observant. A college student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the mind–and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and tall, handsome husband. Private property, Frances believes, is a cultural evil–and Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential, looks like patriarchy made flesh.

But however amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect. As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances’s intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new: a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

I’ll be the first to admit, I definitely don’t understand the hype around Sally Rooney’s books. With all the coverage Normal People has received since it came out, I thought I’d begin with her first book as a primer.

It turned out I kind of hated it!

For starters, I didn’t think a single one of the characters was likable – which for a book focused on character studies and less so on plot, seems to me a major drawback. Frances was bland and boring and too in-her-head and passive. At one point she just states outright that she never wants to work, just coast by in life. Melissa and Nick clearly had some relationship issues they needed to work out..together, not while having affairs with a pair of college students. And don’t even get me started on Bobbi – she was flaky, cruel, and thought she was the deepest, most intelligent person in any room. I hated her relationship with Frances because it had a horrible sort of master/servant quality to it, where Frances was kind of pathetically tied to her while she just went out and flirted around.

To be fair, I can still find things to appreciate about this book – for one, Rooney is really good at putting into words the subtleties of human interactions, and how we’ve been socialized to act around others. Like when Frances was visiting Melissa’s house for the first time,

I felt excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s home, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming.

When I read that, I thought yes!! That is exactly what I do too when meeting new people – try to smile but not too much, sound interested but not overly enthusiastic, have a few prepared soundbites in case of awkward pauses, etc.

Or perhaps when Frances drafts an email to Nick:

I need to be fun and likeable, I thought. A fun person would send a thank-you e-mail. I got up and typed a brief message congratulating Nick on his performance and expressing gratitude for the tickets. I moved the sentences here and there, and then seemingly at random I hit the send button. Afterward I shut my laptop and went back to sitting on the floor.

I’ve done the whole write up a perfectly fine email, then worry it doesn’t sound good so delete most of it, then rewrite, then spend entirely too much time editing even more, then finally send and hope they don’t think it’s weird thing my entire email-writing life. Does anyone else do this too? I don’t think I’ve ever seen any author describe these small things before, and it was oddly validating.

In spite of that, it was pretty clear: this was not the book for me!

2 thoughts on “Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney

  1. Oof, this book doesn’t sound very appealing to me either based off of your review–which was concise & fantastic btw. I’m still interested in reading Normal People, so if you get around to reading that, I will definitely be tuning in to see how you liked it!

    Liked by 1 person

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