Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: Mulling things over

Cover image 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.

19 thoughts on “Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: Mulling things over”

  1. I haven’t heard of this one (casualty of exiting the Twitter-sphere) but it sounds like a fun and enjoyable read. Great review, as always.

  2. Pingback: Talking ’Bout My Generation? Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney – Bookish Beck

  3. Yes, that ending! I can’t wait for the rest of the shadow panel to read this so we can discuss it. I couldn’t decide if it was Love Actually levels of romantic, or if I should be really worried for Frances. I just posted my own review. I loved the book, much more than I expected to. And I would agree it was addictive — the style slid right down.

    1. I wasn’t at all sure about this novel when I started it but came away feeling it was quietly brilliant, and I like the idea of a miniseries you mentioned in your review. Delighted that we’ve found a novel we can wholeheartedly agree on!

  4. Your comment about the ending is intriguing. If it’s in tune with the rest of the “curiously addictive” novel, then it might appeal to me. I’m very picky about endings, though. I’m unhappy when they don’t live up to my expectations!

    1. Hard to come down on either side of that one! As I remember, it worked for the novel but I was a little ambivalent about it. That said, I hadn’t expected to like the novel much at all when I first started it but it ended up being one of my books of the year.

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