Review: ‘Conversations With Friends’ by Sally Rooney


The tremendously successful TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People has thrust the young author’s work further into the literary spotlight: it was recently announced that her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, will also be adapted for the screen. Met upon publication with an outpouring of positive reviews, Conversations with Friends follows Frances, a student at Trinity College Dublin, as she navigates an array of complex relationships. 

The person closest to Frances throughout is Bobbi, a daring young woman who occupies the challenging position of not only being Frances’ best friend, but also her ex-girlfriend, having dated her at school. Frances and Bobbi’s talent for spoken word poetry leads them to a “slightly famous” older married couple, Nick (an actor) and Melissa (a writer and photographer), when Melissa writes a profile for them. In a plot development that seems inevitable from their moment of meeting, Frances begins an affair with Nick, exposing her to the judgement of her peers, the scrutiny of her mother, and the nature of her relationship with Bobbi via a series of emotional revelations. 

As a character, Frances is immediately intriguing: she is highly intelligent and, we might assume from her actions and tendency towards provocation, relatively outgoing and self-assured. However, it becomes apparent that she has numerous struggles, many of which are typical of young adults: she spends a lot of time thinking about her body, and expresses envy of Bobbi’s appearance on several occasions (“Often I find myself believing that if I looked like Bobbi, nothing bad would happen to me” she muses at one point).

Interestingly, Frances’ concern with her appearance sometimes expresses itself via the sensation of being physically outside herself: she describes a “depersonalising shock” upon seeing her reflection, pulling her out of a reverie in which, again, she imagines that she looks like Bobbi.

This notion of being almost outside reality appears again when she claims that the world is “like a crumpled ball of newspaper” to her, something that she can “kick around” how and when she chooses. Whether a coping mechanism or an intellectual exercise, it becomes evident that she is not capable of manipulating the world around her in this detached manner: as her relationships with others develop, the illusion of emotional and physical separateness disintegrates and she is forced to confront her vulnerabilities.

Frances is immediately intriguing.

As the title of the novel would suggest, much revolves around verbal conversation, something that many of the characters have a voracious appreciation of. Frances likens her zeal for conversation to the “irrational and sensuous way” in which she enjoys “coffee or loud music”, and the discussions held in the novel are vivid and often vigorously intellectual.

For those more easily exhausted by conversation in general, some of what is uttered by Rooney’s characters (particularly the indefatigable Bobbi) may seem prodigal to the point of being contrived: “Bobbi thought that the fetishization of ‘untouched nature’ was intrinsically patriarchal and nationalistic” is one such example.

Impressive and well-founded though these observations may be, some of Frances’ ‘conversations’ reminded me of the experience many of us have likely had with certain individuals in our college dining halls, attempting to eat a bowl of pasta while being bombarded with heady intellectual topics such as theology or whether scientific realism is valid (or maybe that’s just Hatfield). 

Though it is inevitable that a novel will include the ‘best bits’ of conversation, and we might imagine that the characters have had many less remarkable discussions outside the pages of the book, it remains true that Rooney’s characters embody a certain group in society, their interests and apprehensions reflective of ‘the modern university student’ stereotype.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I felt that the persistent intellectualism sometimes had the effect of distancing the reader from the characters, creating a lack of relatability where there could have been greater sincerity and warmth. However, this may be exactly the point: though Frances is gifted and articulate, she struggles to express how she really feels, often to an extent that verges on irritating, in spite of our empathy for her.

The persistent intellectualism sometimes [distances] the reader from the characters…However, this may be exactly the point.

The novel has been described by Joe Dunthorne of The Observer as a “perfectly observed novel of modern love and friendship”, and in its agile analysis of the complexities of human interaction it seems worthy of the title. Despite the connectivity of modern society, Rooney’s characters feel strongly and independently, attempting to sustain an illusion of sophistication while their encounters with each other do them private harm.

It will be interesting to see how the novel is adapted for the screen, and whether, as some feel was the case with Normal People, the actors’ performances might add an emotional depth that Rooney’s direct, unelaborate writing style sometimes struggles to convey.


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