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.’