This is one of those novels that’s been gathering a head of steam in my neck of the Twitter woods. Not in an off-putting, shouty, endless-stream-of-gushy-tweets way – just enough to pique my interest. It’s a debut from a young Irish author about two best friends – once lovers – who fall into a friendship with an older couple whose marriage seems a little frayed. It’s a novel about relationships, about youth and the dawning of middle age, and about the gap between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us.
Twenty-one-year-old students Frances and Bobbi have been friends since school. Bobbi is the outspoken one, happy to pontificate loudly, lengthily and intelligently about the state of the world while Frances fades into the background, dull and lacking in personality – or at least that’s how she thinks of herself. They catch Melissa’s eye while performing Frances’ poetry on the street. She wants to write a magazine feature about them to which they agree, a little star struck by Melissa’s reputation and her marriage to a beautiful actor. Frances and Bobbi find themselves drawn into Melissa and Nick’s orbit – meeting their friends, attending dinner parties, bumping into them at Dublin’s arts events then invited to join them in France for a holiday. Bobbi has a crush on Melissa, then Frances takes an initiative which leads to an affair with Nick. Frances’ day-to-day life – her worries about her father’s alcoholism, her concerns about Bobbi’s handling of her parents’ break-up, her own seeming lack of direction – is the background hum to this affair in which neither party seems to know quite what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.
Conversations with Friends is written entirely from Frances’ point of view. She thinks of herself as nondescript – Bobbi is the vibrant, beautiful one, argumentative but erudite with it. If that was the case, it would make for a rather dull book but Frances is not what she thinks she is as Bobbi makes clear towards the end of the novel. Rooney smartly captures the awkwardness of young adulthood, trying to find a way to be and a place in the world. She has a knack of making the most mundane observations both interesting and amusing – Frances’ angst-ridden narrative reminded me at times of a Woody Allen film. Melissa’s friends are portrayed as a little jaded, painfully conscious of the age gap between themselves and Frances and Bobbi. This isn’t a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably. It’s about the endless exchanges that make up relationships, big and small; the misunderstandings, misconceptions and happenstance that can ultimately shape your life. I wasn’t at all sure about the ending but somehow it was in tune with the rest of the novel which I found curiously addictive.