Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Best for: Those looking for a quick read about complicated relationships.
In a nutshell: Frances is a 21-year-old college student who writes poetry and performs it with her best friend / ex-girlfriend Bobbi. They meet writer Melissa, and her actor husband Nick, who is quite appealing to Frances. Events transpire.
“I didn’t know how to join in their new friendship without debasing myself for their attention.”
“Realising not only that hurting Bobbi’s feelings was within my power but that I had done it practically offhandedly and without noticing, made me uncomfortable.”
“I thought of myself as an independent person, so independent that the opinions of others were irrelevant to me.”
Why I chose it: I was at a Waterstones and picked the book up (it was prominently displayed on a table). The review pull quote across the top said “Fearless, sensual writing.” I immediately put it down, because I’ve not ever found myself enjoying writing that I would characterise as ‘sensual.’ The shop manager noticed and spent the next two minutes trying to sell me on the book, and to ignore that quote. I acquiesced, and am happy I did so.
Author Sally Rooney has an interesting way with words. With this book, she is able to create characters that I don’t think we’re meant to root for or against, but to just be interested in. The book is told from Frances’s first person perspective, so the other three main characters come to us through that lens, and it’s clear that we’re meant to recognize that what Frances is telling us isn’t everything there is to know about them. And I don’t mean this in an ‘unreliable narrator’ / ‘there’s a mystery to be solved’ sort of way, just that with Ms. Rooney’s writing, I feel that she understands how little we all know about the people in our lives.
The book centers around the ideas of love and relationships. The primary focus at times seems to be romantic relationships, but I think the book also does a good job at looking at friendships as well as relationships with our families of origin. How much do we choose to share of ourselves with our partners? Our parents? How do we make those calculations? How do those relationships shape us? How much do we re-frame and reformulate those relationships as a way to help us understand ourselves?
Frances’s character develops over time, and you can see her taking more steps to get to know who she is. In some moments its easy to forget that she’s still in college and has to sort out the big life questions like ‘what do I want to be when I grow up,’ and I think that’s mostly due to Ms. Rooney’s writing. Yes, there are some eye-roll-worthy moments that those of us who have been out of college for many years might look at and think ‘awww, I remember debating that in the pub. How sweet,’ but Ms. Rooney doesn’t condescend to her characters. Frances and Bobbi are younger than I am (I’m not quite old enough to be Frances’s mother, but I could be her aunt) but they aren’t acting especially immature, at least not in unexpected ways. I think they’re relatable, even if the actions they’re taking aren’t ones I’d necessarily take.
So thanks, Waterstones bookseller. I DID like it!