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Book Review: Conversations With Friends

Martin Kirsch looks back at one of last year's biggest literary surprises, the debut novel from Sally Rooney

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One’s early twenties are a rather confusing time. People leave home hoping to return as guests. We leave to find the promise of ourselves. Adulthood, identity, love, and responsibility. Not everyone will make it. Not everyone truly leaves in the first place.

Enormous are the promises of those years spanning from university to getting a first full-time job. Frances, however, does not know what to do with her life. She studies English Literature at Trinity College Dublin, and half-heartedly interns at a publishing house. This does not sound particularly interesting, and it isn’t. But it is relatable. Sally Rooney’s wonderful debut novel ‘Conversations with Friends’ perfectly captures the peculiar period in our lives when we don’t know where we’ll be in six months.

Frances seems to take the days as they come. She and her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi perform poetry at spoken-word events. One day, Melissa, a well-established author takes note and offers to make a portrait of them in a literary magazine. She quickly draws them into Dublin’s literary circle and into her private life. Frances takes interest in Melissa’s husband Nick, an attractive and somewhat reserved actor. A surprisingly intimate affair unfolds between them…

‘Conversations’ has a minimalist quality about it. There are only four characters that truly matter for the story to work, everything else is mere setting. Rooney focusses on character development rather than on intricate socio-economic narratives. We get to know these characters intimately, and their backgrounds do not explain their actions. Narrated from Frances’s perspective, we experience everything intimately. Bobbi, whilst beautiful, funny, and somewhat spoiled, is often the object an of adoration. But she is also one of muted competition and envy. For Frances regards herself as calculating, passive (and she certainly is in some ways), and plain-looking compared to Bobbi. Rooney shows a relationship that transcends hanging out and sharing embarrassing stories. It seems these two, always on the brink of a fight, always holding back something, have gone through almost every conflict people can have with one another.

Melissa’s husband Nick quickly becomes Frances’s centre of attention, replacing Bobbi in some way. His intentions often remain unclear; whilst inquisitive and sensitive, he is passive and takes things as they come. Nick does not know what he wants, except for not being a burden for anyone else. Deeply conflicted about his affair, he goes along anyways. Almost immediately attracted to each other, random emails turn into a permanent affair.

Frances never bears much hope that Nick will leave Melissa for her. And yet this is more than just physical attraction. Both Nick and her awkwardly try to calibrate and recalibrate where they stand with one another. It is a pleasure read this back-and-forth between them as they test their boundaries, never really knowing where they are. When they go too far, they recover and sulk for days, even weeks. Then it starts all over again. Rooney depicts a relationship of two people who don’t really know what they are doing. It is messy, intimate, and realistic. And we never really know where it is going.

Rooney knows exactly what to focus on. This is all about people putting everything on the table, often brutally honest. It is intimate, and it is confusing. Some of these conversations have a raw quality about them that could put them into any relationship. The prose reflects this well. There are no embellishments, unnecessary words, or even inverted commas. Frances’s observations are enough. This is the kind of book that makes you feel like you have lived inside someone else for some time. Somewhat haunting, but also beautiful and contradictory.

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