While the writing is fantastic, Frances can be exasperating to spend time with and I don’t think enough is done to establish her friendship with Bobbi.  Still, this is a debut worth your attention.

opening remarks

Every person and his canine has included Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends on their best of year lists.  I’ve decided to see what all the fuss is about.

knee-jerk observations

Frances and Bobbi have been friends for a very long time.  They met in secondary school, were partners for a period and now, more than five-years later, are very close friends.  Together they perform poetry readings – or more precisely Frances writes the poems and Bobbi performs.  At one of these readings, they meet Melissa a well-known photographer who is interested in using Frances and Bobbi as her subjects.  They also meet Melissa’s partner, Nick, a moderately famous actor.  While Bobbi and Melissa are drawn to each other Frances finds herself a little besotted with Nick and his Hollywood handsome features.

Below is Frances’ reaction when she sees Nick perform in a production of a Cat On a Hot Tin Roof:

This excerpt is both a sad story about a young girl looking to find companionship and a reminder that men are the worst:

The first quarter of Conversations with Friends follows a familiar shape.  The relationship between Frances and Bobbi grows distant as their attention shifts to the new people in their lives – Melissa for Bobbi, Nick for Frances.  Inevitably Frances gets it on with Nick, which only pushes her further away from Bobbi as Frances spends most of her spare time shagging this handsome married actor.  Still, at this point, it remains an engaging read.  As a first-person account, Frances tends to be self-deprecating and down on herself, but she’s also warm, smart and very funny.  Right now, I’m enjoying my time in Frances’ head.

While there’s a maturity to Frances that belies her youth (she’s 21) her affair with Nick does heighten her anxiety.  This is her first serious relationship with a man and given it’s an illicit one it’s no wonder that she’s sensitive and scared, which she masks with belligerence.  The temptation would be to allow the angst to overwhelm Frances as a person but Rooney does a fantastic job of expressing Frances’ doubts and fears without amping the melodrama.  Here’s an example:

My only reservation with the novel so far is the antagonism between Bobbi and Frances.  Given they meet Melissa on the first page of the novel the fractures in their relationship begin almost immediately.  From the outset, Frances is aware that Bobbi is trying to impress Melissa and this results in some jealousy but also heated arguments between the two mates.  We get a hint of what they’re friendship looked like before the intrusion of Melissa and Nick, but you can’t help but wonder whether they ever liked each other.  I know you can be mates with someone and sometimes deeply hate them, it’s the paradox of friendship. It’s just in this instance there’s too much animosity and not enough bonding.  Like Frances we need to be reminded that she and Bobbi were actually friends:

One of the strengths of Conversations with Friends is the dialogue and the rhythm of the prose. I especially like the line, “incidentally it turned out that I was crying”:

I’ve said previously that I don’t really like self-destructive characters.  The protagonist who regularly and deliberately does the opposite of what a ‘rational’ person would do.  Frances is right on the cusp of being that sort of character.  She lies – either by omission or outright – to everyone in her life.  Some of the fibbing is justified, she is having an affair, and some of it, like forgetting to tell Bobbi that she wrote a story where Bobbi was the main character or Frances lying about her health (she has endometriosis) feels like she is deliberately isolating herself from those who love and care for her.  The only mitigating factor is that Frances is pushing forward with her writing career.

Now, some would argue that Frances is a private person, not everyone is comfortable speaking about their health or being open about their emotional state.  A number of times it’s pointed out that Frances hides her feelings, that she’s difficult to read.  But when your sense of the personal begins to destroy your relationship with others, when you have to outright lie to hide how you’re feeling, then it’s time to re-consider whether this might be an act of self-sabotage.

Anyway, enough of my ham-fisted psychobabble, Frances is not unaware of her situation as described quite brilliantly here:

Melissa’s takedown of Frances is on-point:

The Gist Of It

Is Frances a self-destructive person or is she a naive 21-year-old who hasn’t figured out what she wants out of life and more importantly who she wants to love?  Sally Rooney doesn’t provide an answer which means that spending time in Frances’ head can be infuriating.  But probably no more infuriating than the head of most 21-year-olds.

What mitigates the frustration is Rooney’s top drawer prose and her clear love for Frances.  Ok, she gives her a terrible disease and a less than perfect family life – her father is an alcoholic who deteriorates considerably throughout the course of the novel – but, as we discover, Frances isn’t alone.   She is loved by Nick, even if their relationship is less than ideal, and she has a deep, complicated bond with Bobbi.  It’s not a friendship that I was invested in, I felt there weren’t enough moments, especially in the first half, when they acted like friends, so when they split I was a little meh about it all.  Still, this is partly rectified toward the novel’s conclusion, not in a way that’s remotely straightforward, they still have a fraught and messy friendship but, again, it’s a clear example that Frances is not alone.

While Conversations With Friends does not feature in my top books of the year I can understand why it excited so many and why Sally Rooney will be a writer to watch for years to come.