“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney
review by Meredith McKinnie
“I ran my finger along his collarbone and said: I can’t remember if I thought about this at the beginning. How it was doomed to end unhappily. He nodded, looking at me. I did, he said. I just thought it would be worth it.”
SallyRooney’s first novel, published in 2017, follows Frances and Bobbi, soulmates of sorts navigating the awkward space of being former lovers and now devoted friends. In the summer before their final year of university, Frances and Bobbi meet Melissa, an accomplished, glamorous author a decade older who is intrigued by the duo’s slam poetry readings at a club in Dublin. When Melissa’ husband Nick enters the dynamic, Frances and Nick recognize kindred spirits in one another and an immense sexual attraction, complicating the foursome’s friendship and targeting Bobbi’s hold on being the most important person in Frances’ life. Through a layering of in-person exchanges highlighting Gen Z’s take on the hopeless state of the world, Rooney compellingly twists a contemporary romance novel that ignores the conventions of a traditional bestselling love story.
Rooney slammed on the literary scene with this novel, recently adapted by Hulu for a limited series. The title of the novel seems appropriate for one that relies on dialogue and overcoming the hiccups of friendship. What Rooney does superbly is to slowly reveal the essence of her characters as they incrementally expose themselves in actions and reactions. Her work thrives on the unknown, relaying background story as necessary to anchor the poignance of the plot. Rooney allows readers into the lives of privileged Europeans absorbed with the same melodramas that dominate everyday American life. Money does not ensconce someone in protection from heartache; if anything, money delays the routine disappointments that make painful self-discovery more manageable. Rooney does not ask sympathy for her characters, but they get it anyway. She does not ask disdain for her characters, but they get that too. In their complexity, they capture readers’ full attention. As I rushed to the end of this book, I mourned its eventual ending.
Rooney is the type of author that makes one wish she churned out more novels at a pace comparable to our reading them. Perhaps it is simply the social progressiveness of European life, but Rooney explores identities still debated in the states without telling us how to feel about them. She does not shy away from challenging gender expectations or heteronormative realities, but she does so without telling readers how to think about such topics. Perhaps she imagines a world where identity concerns are not debated; perhaps in Ireland, where Rooney and her characters hail from, binary assumptions are a thing of the past. But in Rooney’s telling, what invites scorn stateside is simply a fact in this fictional world, and she and her characters could care less what we think about it. Conversations with Friends is superb escapism with little tolerance for sanctimonious American scrutiny.
“I certainly couldn’t tell her what I found most endearing about him, which was that he was attracted to plain and emotionally cold women like me.”