Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 336 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I came to Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’d heard so much about this book after it won the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer Award 2017 that I was positive it couldn’t live up to the hype. I was wrong.
This debut novel is a perfectly pitched mood piece about what it is like to be in your 20s, that horribly messy time when you’re discovering adult responsibilities and trying to figure out where you fit in the grand scheme of things. Reading it was like being dragged back to my own youth when I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life and felt torn between the uncertainty of the future and the cosy comfort of the past.
First person narrative
Rooney puts us firmly into the head of 21-year-old Frances, a university student doing an internship at a publishing company in Dublin. She’s super smart, quick-witted and cool, but lacks any drive to make something of herself.
I hadn’t been kidding with Philip about not wanting a job. I didn’t want one. I had no plans as to my future financial stability: I never wanted to earn money for doing anything. I’d had various minimum wage jobs in previous summers — sending emails, making cold calls, things like that — and I expected to have more of them after I graduated. Though I knew that I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt that disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.
Together with best friend, Bobbi, who was once her girlfriend, the pair perform spoken word poetry, which draws the attention of an influential journalist called Melissa. Melissa inveigles her way into their lives as a way of getting to know them better for the profile piece she plans to write. She draws them into her inner circle of friends, invites them to her stylish home for wild dinner parties and introduces them to her husband, a good-looking actor called Nick.
The first-person narrative largely charts the ups and downs between these four characters as alliances are forged, secrets are kept from one another and loyalties are tested to the limit. There are betrayals, petty grievances and racuous arguments, too.
Much of the storyline moves ahead through dialogue — clever, whipsmart dialogue, it has to be said, the kind of dialogue that is flippant and facetious in order to hide the fragility of those making the cutting remarks. The conversations between Frances and Bobbi, a strong-minded, occasionally abrasive personality, are laced with humour and wordplay, but they are never emotionally intimate: they hold each other at a distance, despite having once being lovers.
Honesty, with others and oneself, forms the crux point of the novel. This is exemplified by Frances embarking on an affair with Nick, a man 11 years her senior, whom she becomes slightly obsessed about. She expends a serious amount of energy trying to keep the relationship secret from Nick’s wife and Bobbi, and it later leads to her undoing, but along the way she learns to confront her own fears and vulnerabilities. It’s an extraordinary portrait of one woman’s coming of age, but it’s also an insightful look at the bonds of female friendship.
Conversations with Friends won’t be for everyone, but I found it a rather astonishing, heart-rending and compassionate read and I can’t wait to pick up Rooney’s new one, Normal People, as soon as my Shadow Giller Prize reading is over…