I’ve finally got round to writing this review, although I know for a fact I was writing it down on the inside of my head whilst reading it. Three of the most overwhelming feelings I carried with me from start to finish were : self-awareness, anticipation and fear of the end. I didn’t want the narrative to stop, because I was so emotionally invested in all four characters. What they were thinking, feeling- what they were going to do next- all of these things became my priority.
Frances, as a protagonist, was probably the biggest reason why I connected so well with this book, and why I felt like I could not put it down until I had read every word. Like me, Frances is twenty-one. She is also a writer. She is also in some state of emotional turmoil- or as she puts it- ‘unemotional’ turmoil. I very rarely show my emotions or tell people how I’m actually feeling, so for this reason me and Frances became the best of friends. I almost felt like I was living through her. She was confiding her feelings in me, and I was confirming their existence in me by reading them. As the narrator, she drove on the plot by revealing more and more about how she was thinking about the world, and how she was interacting with it. I felt like I was right there with her in Dublin, studying, writing, sleeping with a married man (it is that realistic). Sally Rooney has a very special way of making everything feel so real, by striking the perfect balance between mundane conversation and depth of description. This novel was a cathartic journey. I read it, much like how I imagined Frances, with a cold and empty expression on my face. When I was done, I remained expressionless. And then I cried for a few hours and replayed the whole thing in my head and cried some more.
‘Inside the kitchen Nick was putting the clean wine glasses away in the cabinet. He looked up at me and said : oh, hello. Instantly, like I was reciting something, I replied : I felt like a glass of water. He made a humorous face, like he didn’t really believe me, but he handed me a glass of water anyway. I poured the water and then stood against the fridge door to drink it. It was lukewarm and tasted chlorinated. Eventually Nick stood in front of me and said, they’re aren’t any more wine glasses, so. We were looking at each other. I told him he was a total embarrassment and he said he was ‘extremely aware’ of that. He put his hand on my waist and I felt my whole body lift toward him. I touched the buckle of his belt and said : we can sleep together if you want, but you should know I’m only doing it ironically.’
Conversations With Friends follows a girl called Frances and the relationships she has in her lives, especially the thought processes going on as a result of them. Primarily, there are three people who the narrative revolves around, observes and analyses. First is Bobbi; attractive, confident and anarchistic, her ex-girlfriend and best-friend. Second is Melissa, a successful journalist interested in documenting their partnership as spoken word performers. Third is Nick, Melissa’s husband, a low-key successful actor and, most importantly, the love interest of narrator, Frances. As a reader, you become involuntarily sucked into Frances’s social circle and everything that encompasses it. She and Bobbi enter Melissa and Nick’s world of networking and literary events, resulting in the growth of something with Nick, who seems quiet and distant. It was really interesting for me to see how Rooney constructs a longer narrative, particularly after reading her short story, Mr Salary, which also follows a relationship between a young woman and an older man. I loved how the story moves with such pace, but without missing anything important in between. One of the joys of reading a first person narrative is getting to know the protagonist in depth, and you really get that with this book. As I said earlier, I have a lot in common with the narrator- in both age and her habit of constant self-deprecation- but I think anyone could read this book and become genuinely drowned in the story.
Another aspect of Rooney’s writing that I’ve enjoyed across her work is the problematic parental figures she often includes. She mentioned that this is something she’d like to stop doing, but feels she cannot as of yet, in an interview after the release of her short story in Granta’s New Irish Writing publication. I found this interesting, because this is one of my favourite parts of how she constructs her characters. Their relationships with their families are always complex, much like any family, and I really enjoy the way she weaves this into the narrative without it becoming a stereotypical story about teenagers and their annoying parents. Her characters are fully formed adults, but the remnants of childhood remains with them and it’s intriguing to see how they navigate this alongside the rest of their lives. Whilst I’ve seen criticisms of the book regarding its discussion of class, based on the complete absence of any financial factors affecting the lives of the characters, I kind of liked this aspect. I worry enough about money as it is, and whilst books have the ability to comment on the real world and the issues in it, I think they also have the power to escape that and become a sort of fantasy. And Frances does incur some financial hiccups later on. This doesn’t take away from her very privileged life, but her background is substantially less wealthy than that of the rest of the characters, and her problematic parental figures add to the depth of this discussion. Rooney touches on some important talking points regarding money and relationships, and especially class and privilege, and so I think it would be a shallow comment to disregard the book as an upper-class, two-dimensional piece as I have seen some people calling it.
‘The water was too hot, and I could see when I lifted my hands they had turned a glaring pink colour. I washed the glasses and cutlery first, then the dishes, then the pots and pans. When everything was clean, I emptied the sink, wiped down the kitchen surfaces and swept the peelings back into the bin. Watching the soap bubbles slide silently down the blades of kitchen knives, I had a sudden desire to harm myself. Instead I put away the salt and pepper shakers and went into the living room.
I’m off, I said.
You’re away, are you?
That bin needs taking out.
See you again, my father said.’
As I have been writing this review, I have been very conscious of not giving too much away. I hate reading reviews with spoilers myself, and I’ve been particularly aware of it with this book as it has been so very hyped, and so the likeliness of people actually buying it and reading it is a lot higher. It is one of those stories that unravels slowly throughout, but the fast paced narrative drives the plot forward at such speed that you, yourself as the reader, begin to feel you are falling behind. So I won’t throw you off with too much information. But just know, you should definitely read this book. If you need an escape from the stress of your own life, if you’re feeling emotionally unemotional and need some solace in a friend you don’t know in real life, if you’re looking for a book to suck you back into the world of reading : Conversations With Friends is the book for you.