With a third Sally Rooney novel on the way and a TV adaptation of this, her first, in the works, Conversations with Friends is surely about to re-enter the conversation. So let’s talk about it.
The title tells you two important things about the novel: its dialogue-heaviness and its simplicity of prose. What it fails to give you a sense of is the novel’s narrative. There are arguments, yes, soliloquies, certainly, flirtations, most definitely, but I’m hard pressed to remember anything so mundane as a conversation ever happening. Part of the problem, though I accept this may just be my problem, are these so-called ‘Friends’. There is nothing that annoys me more, in life and in art, than a precocious teenager who has the entire history of Western philosophy at their fingertips, and in Conversations with Friends we get just such a character in Bobbi (okay, she is just out of teenagehood, but she is still preternaturally brainy). Mercifully, Bobbi is not our narrator – that would be her friend (and ex-girlfriend) Frances – and she is somewhat redeemed by the suggestion that maybe her brilliance is all in Frances’ head. That idea I like.
Frances, you see, is comparatively unremarkable. Early on, she admits to having no “real personality” of her own and, by way of disguising this, will change her spots on cue:
Bobbi and I often performed [Frances’] poetry at spoken word events and open mic nights that summer. When we were outside smoking and male performers tried to talk to us, Bobbi would always pointedly exhale and say nothing, so I had to act as our representative. This meant a lot of smiling and remembering details about their work. I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things.
Given this talent for acting, Frances’ involvement with an actual actor seems a match made in heaven. Nick is in his early thirties and, though his career may be on the wane, his looks are not. He is “exceptionally handsome” – to the point of absurdity, I have to say – and genuinely quite nice too, if a little withdrawn. There is just one problem: he’s married. Worse, his wife, Melissa, is a friend of Bobbi and Frances’ and is writing a hagiographic magazine piece on their poetry act. These are our players, then, these our complications, and the rest of the novel is about how these rub up against each other – literally rub, in the case of Nick and Frances.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is the setting. Frances and Bobbi are students at Trinity College Dublin, and apart from a brief sojourn in France, the whole novel takes place in Ireland. But you would hardly know it. Not a single mention of the Troubles, nor an ounce of self-consciousness about same-sex relationships. It’s refreshing, and Rooney is surely at the vanguard of a new Irish literature here. She is particularly good on technology, something many contemporary writers are still afraid of, and quotes emails and texts with a reverence usually reserved for letters. She is aware that we communicate differently online, is alive to how ambiguous and easily-misconstrued these messages can be, and gets those registers just right. She’s not completely damning of technology, either. Trying to work out Bobbi’s true feelings for her, Frances “decide[s] to start reading over [their] old instant message conversations” one night:
It comforted me to know that my friendship with Bobbi wasn’t confined to memory alone, and that textual evidence of her past fondness for me would survive her actual fondness if necessary.
How is this different from Bendrix poring over Sarah’s diary in The End of the Affair? One of the most common criticisms of the internet is its permanence, but have we not always been recording our innermost feelings on things that will outlast us?
Published in 2017, Conversations with Friends must also mark the first appearance in fiction of the Netflix generation. Bobbi and Frances have a very casual relationship with film and TV, putting things on to zone out in a way that seems completely true to how we live in 2021. That said, they have good taste (of course they have), and the novel is deliciously cineliterate. All the way through, its frank, almost screwbally depiction of female friendship smacks of Greta Gerwig and, sure enough, the novel does not leave us without a reference to Frances Ha. However, where a ninety-minute film can get away with a threadbare plot, a three-hundred-page novel can’t, and perhaps my biggest issue with Conversations with Friends is how it meanders. Frances and Nick break up and get back together one too many times; the alcoholic father thread seems to be coming from a whole other kind of Irish novel; and the late-in-the-day illness of our main character is such a clichéd way of injecting energy into a flagging text. I wish Rooney had had the courage of her convictions and stuck to her conversations, rather than falling back on these false notes of melodrama, because as a chronicler of how we communicate in the twenty-first century, she is peerless.
Conversations with Friends is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.