Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Book Review – Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

It was hard to miss all the recommendations for Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends in the end-of-year articles listing the best releases of the year. As I have a liking for Irish writing and a Dublin setting I bought it as part of my Christmas holiday reading. I wasn’t disappointed.

Rooney has a distinctive voice that carries the reader along as if we’re listening to the first person narrator chatting us through her life day-by-day. I was quickly drawn in, as if listening to a friend revealing all, but the simplicity of the style is scattered with striking metaphors and some beautifully worded sentences that made me wonder if Rooney, like her main character Frances, is also a poet.

Frances is 21 and still close to her best female friend from school, the noncomformist Bobbi, who was also her first love and her greatest influence. Bobbi ended their relationship for reasons unknown until the end of the novel, but they still perform poetry together and are fairly inseparable. Frances admires Bobbi and is clearly still in love with her.

When the literary journalist Melissa comes into their life to photograph them and write an article, they get invited to her house and to events where she introduces them to her handsome actor husband Nick and important people in the literary world. This will help Frances get published, but should she, as her new attempt at fiction is clearly autobiographical and characters are recognisable.

If this makes it sound as if it’s a novel about writers, not the most welcome theme, then don’t be misled. Instead Frances takes us through a year of complex relationships, where she and Melissa are
bisexual, Bobbi is lesbian and Nick is heterosexual. As this leads to affairs with all the usual jealousies, self-questioning, judgmental attitudes of others and lowering of self-esteem after the initial ‘falling in love’, the reader is left questioning why marriage survives and whether monogamy is conditioning rather than instinct.

Frances falls in love with a man for the first time while retaining her love for Bobbi, and has to ask herself why she would expect faithfulness from another when she can love and desire two people. Bobbi can’t understand why anyone would get married any more as she sees it as an institution to protect the patriarchy and the lack of doubt over paternity. She no longer wants to be called a girlfriend and prefers to be called a friend. Monogamy isn’t important to her and she feels love can be for more than one person, just as parents can love their children equally. In one of the conversations with friends, their more conventional social circle disagree.

When Frances decides to stop analysing and to experience instead, realising that some things can only be understood by living them, it seems ironic as the whole novel is in a voice that ‘over-thinks’ and analyses every situation. Frances even over-analyses step-by-step through the sex scenes so it’s hard to know whether she really enjoys them as much as she says. She’s an analytical mind, but it’s somehow both enjoyable and stressful being in there with her. She displays all the joy and angst of university-age women. It’s certainly a different way to write about sex.

While all of this is going on, Frances is also managing to spend much of her time in the university library getting on with her degree, and working as an intern in a literary agency, although she has no ambition for any career. A quip about how her course (English literature) will lead to her being able to write in a way that nobody can understand made me chuckle aloud, and Rooney weaves academic English into the novel here and there as that’s how Frances and her friends would be thinking but it’s like a foreign language to most people. Philosophers and literary theorists are named and quoted as part of her stream of consciousness, but there’s no need to look them up.

The visits to Frances’s divorced parents are also well depicted, with her father still going through the mood swings and alcoholism she remembers from her childhood. Her mother is more capable but perhaps an enabler, expecting Frances to carry on humouring her father, while he fails to provide the money she needs and goes out of contact so it’s hard to know if he’s suicidal or even still alive. It’s easy to see why Frances has developed a protective barrier against the outside world and emotion, and why her self-esteem is so low despite her academic and creative talents.

This backstory is contained seamlessly within the narrative, so that the reader can see why Frances is attracted to the beautiful home and the almost parental figures of Melissa and Nick (and has the self-awareness to ponder this herself).

Melissa also questions her right, or lack of it, to be upset if her husband is unfaithful, when she herself has had affairs, while Bobbie would no doubt question terms such as ‘unfaithful’ and ‘affairs’. It all reminds me of an evolved version of the 1970s when we questioned how much our behaviour was due to conditioning and whether we needed to break away from much that we took for granted.

There’s a new earnestness, or maybe that was also there in the 1970s. Bobbie is angry if any emotional blackmail games are played, or if she feels she’s being used to make another jealous, even if it’s only with a smile and whispering in the ear to feign closeness in front of a new lover losing interest. Lack of honesty and openness is also met with anger and temporary ‘unfriending’, because after all, in polyamory honesty is important. Deceit is the trademark of old-fashioned values and ‘cheating’ on spouses. But can Frances manage a new kind of relationship, or set of relationships? The novel leaves us to work that one out for ourselves.


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