Last year everyone went ga-ga for Beautiful World, Where Are You. Remember bucket hats? But I just couldn’t get up for the latest version of Sally Rooney. A young novelist who went to New York writing about a young writer who went to New York? Snoring! Instead, I impulsively picked up a copy of her 2017 debut novel, Conversations with Friends, when I spotted it in a charity shop around the same time everyone was collectively frothing over the shiny new thing.
Frances and Bobbi are exes, poets and friends. They meet a pair of grown adults, Melissa and Nick, who are almost happily married (it seems). The situation quickly escalates into a Golden Bowl-style love triangle, with Frances and Nick carrying on behind everyone’s backs while Bobbi pursues Melissa from afar. In this regard, Conversations With Friends shares a lot of genetic material with Normal People, Rooney’s second novel; both feature young Irish intellectuals who become embroiled in complicated love affairs.
But rather than a soapy on-and-gain-off-again romance between two hideous youngsters, Conversations With Friends offers a sharper look at identity and intimacy. The players are much more clearly defined and their motivations are at least graspable, if not understandable.
The narrator, Frances, is very young (21), as was Rooney at the time of writing (and still is, some might say!). But the prose is very literary – you can tell because the speech isn’t in quotation marks, ha! You could read Conversations with Friends as a coming-of-age novel, but it’s not YA. It’s YA for adults.
The characters—especially Frances—know a lot, but they don’t know themselves at all. Their lack of self-awareness, especially coupled with their elite education and “book smarts”, can be off-putting to some readers. I would have assumed it would have been annoying if I had known about it before jumping into it. It’s a testament to Rooney’s talent that she makes it interesting, even entertaining. Alexandra Schwartz, in a review for the New Yorker, said, “One wonderful aspect of Rooney’s consistently wonderful novel is the fierce clarity with which she examines the self-delusion that so often coexists with supposed self-knowledge,” and that sums it all up.
I laughed a lot towards the end when Bobbi and Frances basically acted out the Bad Art Friend drama, years before it went viral on Twitter. Frances writes a short story about Bobbi and doesn’t even tell her when it’s accepted for publication (for a whopping €800 fee – let me tell you, no one will get paid that much for the first short story they ever write in 2022!). Melissa grabs it and hands it to Bobbi in a moment of spite. Even though Frances insists that the portrait she’s painting of her friend is “not unflattering,” Bobbi still takes offense. It almost tears friends and ex-lovers apart.
I’m wondering if it’s a spoiler when I wrote it. It’s hard to say because Conversations With Friends doesn’t really have an ending as such. Most of the plot points have a climax, but none of them are really “resolved” by the last page. I suppose you could argue that Frances is making great strides in terms of her self-awareness and boundaries, but her personal development is definitely not over. But Rooney wrote “fin” and she knows best, so.
And of course, conversations with friends are coming to a screen near you. Following the blockbuster success of Hulu’s adaptation of Normal People, Hulu and BBC Three have announced that they will be adapting Rooney’s debut novel. It’s due out sometime this year. Maybe I’m looking at it, maybe I’m not – I can’t say I have a strong feeling one way or the other. Follow:https://mymorningtea.in/
However, what I feel strongly about is my unpopular opinion that Conversations With Friends is a better book than Normal People. It’s a better portrayal of intimacy and the way we perceive ourselves and each other. It’s more readable and interesting, it’s more dynamic, and I liked it a lot more. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to write off Beautiful World, Where Are You? after all.