Book Review | Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Frances is a university student in her early twenties. She performs spoken-word poetry around Dublin with her gregarious ex-girlfriend Bobbi. She’s a self-described communist and vaguely thinks of herself as anti-establishment, but she freely admits that she’s not really sure of herself: ‘At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterward think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am,’ she remarks. It’s quite a startling disassociation from herself. But more on that later.

Frances and Bobbi meet glamorous older couple Melissa and Nick ­– Nick is a moderately successful actor and Melissa an artist. Drawn into their orbit, Bobbi becomes infatuated with Melissa and Frances and Nick begin a romantic relationship. “We can sleep together if you want,” Frances tells Nick, “but you should know I’m only doing it ironically.”

Frances’s passivity and detachment create her belief that she is impervious to the behaviour of others, and they in turn are impervious to the harm she inflicts upon them. And I don’t even think this is self-conscious, but her casual cruelty to the outside world is in sharp contrast to the pain she herself feels in moments of rejection, and the physical pain she inflicts upon herself in almost reflexive moments of self-harm.

‘At times I thought this was the worst misery I had experienced in my life, but it was also a very shallow misery, which at any time could have been relieved completely by a word from him and transformed into idiotic happiness.’

I think Sally Rooney delights in creating complicated and not necessarily likeable characters, but still manages to craft them in an empathetic way. In Normal People, I felt that there was a character arc, with conflict, growth and resolution for Marianne and Connell. I struggled to find the same to say about our protagonists in Conversations with Friends, whose near-total narcissism and insularity is steadfast throughout the narrative. I did empathise with the characters – they were cleverly drawn, complex humans – but I expected more of them, a greater self-realisation beyond the bounds of social and material concerns. I think the novel has something to say – about infidelity and youth and the modern condition – but doesn’t quite say enough about any of it.

A redeeming factor is Rooney’s writing; she writes with such effortless cadence and acuity. She’s a master at depicting social situations and all the unspoken and quiet nuance of human interactions – holding a gaze for a moment too long, a hand on the back of a chair.

‘In bed we folded around each other like origami. It’s possible to feel so grateful that you can’t get to sleep at night.’

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9 thoughts on “Book Review | Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

  1. I enjoyed reading your review. I watched the TV series of Normal People and was hooked. Now I do think I should read the book. I agree with what you say about the characters in that coming full circle. It’s interesting what you say about how this differs. I am intrigued to read Conversations With Friends too.

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  2. Great review! Like you, I read Normal People and then Conversations with Friends, and didn’t find the protagonists in CWF nearly as empathetic. But I think you perfectly articulated what works so well about Rooney’s writing – it is SO readable, and she really is excellent at highlighting the unspoken components of social interaction (especially places where communication goes wrong).

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    • Thank you, Hannah! Yes, totally. She has such a keen eye for human behaviour, I wonder if that’s why Normal People translated so well (IMO) to the screen. Even though CwF wasn’t my favourite, I’d read whatever else she wrote just for the way she writes.

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  3. Thank you! I do really like her style, it’s so effortlessly readable (which I think is why there’s so much mass appeal), but I don’t think the storyline quite worked for me here. That said, I did enjoy Normal People because I loved the ‘millennial angst’ angle and the early 2010’s university experience – both elements in CwF but not as well explored, in my opinion. Look forward to reading more of your reviews! 🙂

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  4. This is such a great review, you sum up Rooney’s writing style so well. I’ve now read Normal People twice and still don’t understand the ‘hype’ around it but am yet to read this one – out of interest which did you prefer? Thank you for the follow btw 🙂

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