Book Review - Conversations with Friends
Books Paper Scissors Bookclub, 23/25th October 2018
Review of Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney
Conversations? With Friends? But are they ‘real’ conversations? And are they real friends? The clever conceit in the title of Sally Rooney’s book plays into her hands just as she seems to be playing with us a little. She makes us work extremely hard as readers, second guessing each character’s motivations and true nature. Whilst the ‘conversations’ in the book range from intellectual sparring over a dinner table, to abbreviated half sentences in e-mail, at no point do we get a satisfying ‘full’ emotional conversation. Thus it seems to reflect Frances’s own life, always second guessing what is actually going on whilst not really having a clue, about herself or others.
There is a compelling pull with the book, as if we are hungry for some progress within the story, and the characters are intriguing to speculate on, with all of what makes up humanity – families, jobs, love affairs and inner motivations. Nick, for example - is he just the weak willed ‘beta’ male to his female partners, or alternatively the idealised version of a mate that every woman is looking for – handsome, considerate and domesticated?! Or indeed fragile and misunderstood …. we may never agree. Frances, despite the first person narrative, also remains a bit of a mystery to us. Did she distance herself callously from her father, or harden her heart in self protection? Did she nurture the desire to be a mother, or actually remain deeply in love with Bobbi the entire time? Where is her head in the battle of physical desire versus the intellectual meeting of minds? It’s no surprise that a lot of people, when they have finished this book, are just desperate to meet someone else who has read it, as they try to make up their minds about each character.
Themes there are aplenty, once you start looking. Modern capitalism, and the ‘Post Irish’ society as a “rotten national faith to rail against” (New Yorker). Shame – in one’s own background, or lack of financial means versus one’s peers. Emotional needs – relationships, lack of support from parents, infertility, infidelity and what marriage actually means.
This book has been compared to quite a few others, not least ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’. According to the New Yorker, readers might want to try Rosamond Lehman’s 1936 ‘The Weather in the Streets’ which is highlighted for its ‘scant plot, precise, exquisite suffering and calamitous female physicality’. Sound familiar?! Or Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, which tells a scandalous tale (for 1954) of a 17 year old girl and her affair with an older man on the French Riviera, written by the author when she was just eighteen.
Frustrating overall is the lack of growth, of redemption, of learning, perhaps just what we have all come to expect from a novel and what this author is not giving us. Some shrug their shoulders and recognise that that is what early adulthood simply is, others feel that Sally Rooney is just “messing with us” and that feels irritating, and naïve of the writer. Whether or not the book will ‘age’ well seems academic at this stage, when she is clearly very successful right now, and how many books truly manage any great longevity? It is certainly very ‘of the moment’ and yet also universal, and uncomfortably relatable.