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REVIEW: Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends

Last week I won a giveaway competition on bookstagram and was sent two books as my prize. One of them was Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends (2017). My mind has been back and forth over Sally Rooney recently, from not particularly enjoying reading Normal People, to loving the TV show, so I was intrigued to read her debut. I don’t want to make too much comparison between this and Normal People (because I know many have). I don't quite want to take the 'death of the author' stance, as both novels have very similar themes and tone so it is very hard not to compare, but I think she deserves both to be viewed individually, and not like she is being compared to herself. The most I will say is that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, much more than I did Normal People. I devoured Conversations With Friends and felt something akin to grief while closing its final page. I cried my eyes out letting these characters go. Something about this story touched me and pulled at my heart strings.

Conversations With Friends is told by twenty-one year old Trinity student Frances. With her ex-girlfriend Bobbi, she performs spoken word poetry. One day they are interviewed by a well-known journalist, Melissa, and strike up a friendship with her and her husband Nick, who is an actor. This throws Frances and Bobbi into an upper middle-class world of adult dinner parties and beautiful houses. The four of them develop complex dynamics, ranging from friendship and love, to jealousy and sexual chemistry.

This novel is so interesting because of its many dynamics. It reveals the complex emotions that humans have towards one another. Rooney layers friendship, past love, present love, and sexual tension all on top of one another. They are indistinguishable and often interchangeable. The relationships between the four main characters (Frances, Bobbi, Melissa, Nick) are so interesting, all relating to one another differently, and often revealing their individual personalities in turn. The relationship between Bobbi and Frances, as best friends and ex-girlfriends, is so natural, not forced at all. They have a shared understanding of one another which is quiet, like they can always predict the other's next move. Rooney doesn't need to give much back story to their relationship, you can feel the pull between them on the page, interchanging between best friends and ex-lovers. I found it so interesting and loved that it was very much at the forefront, being perhaps even more interesting than the heterosexual relationships within the novel (although I did love them too, obviously). I cared about them all deeply, even though I did not always like them. The characters are not always painted in a good light, because the other characters expose their reality. I found this really effective, with them all being slightly morally questionable, no one was inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad ‘ – they were just human. Even Frances, the first-person narrator, was painted out badly, which is hard to do when she is the one telling the story.

To me, Frances was, at times, incredibly relatable. Rooney has this fantastic ability to include tiny everyday occurrences into her writing that make you feel like you understand a character completely. Even when any of the characters were doing something completely questionable, you can see their humanness, and you are in no position to judge. Frances is nuanced; she is sad, sometimes cold, and very internal with her feelings. However, she is honest about her confusion of who she truly is and her understanding of others. Her occasional exposure to vulnerability moved me to tears.

Without giving too much away, I feel like this book has a realistic portrayal of what it means to be human. Rooney’s inclusion of medical problems was one of those reasons. Often I have read books and questioned why no one ever seems to be ill. I’m not talking ill ill, like terminal, but I mean the everyday occurrences us humans experience. Like, why does Marianne never seem to have thrush or a UTI from the amount of sex she has in Normal People? (Yes, I know in the short story At The Clinic she does, but not in the 300 page novel that spans years. What is that about?). The inclusion of medical issues in this novel, the various trips to hospital and the doctor, I found very relatable. Earlier this year, I was taking so many trips to the doctors for ultrasounds (on my heart - I'm all good now, don't worry!). I know that the one experience that does span all humans is that at some point, you need to go to the doctors. Probably more often than falling in love, which is taken as 'the' uniting experience. I liked Rooney's inclusion of this in the narrative, and would like to see more.

At times, this book felt it was written just for me. It felt like I had written a score of music myself and was watching Rooney hit the high notes I had laid out in front of me. It was incredibly satisfying and moving at the same time. Not once did I think ‘why is this here?’ or ‘why didn’t she do this instead?’ - it was exactly what I wanted. I like how straight-to-the-point Rooney is, she doesn’t faff about with her prose, she gets right down to the emotions and I found it refreshingly addictive to read.

One part that is a slight downfall for me is that Rooney has a tendency to tell, not show. While I think that this is effective sometimes, such as being able to reduce something into a sentence rather than a scene, there are lots of chapters full of explanation rather than action. As a reader, I quite like to figure things out rather than be told them, but this was only occasional and shouldn’t let anyone be wary of reading.

Also, did anyone else notice the repetition between ideas, scenes, and dialogue in this and Normal People? (visiting a holiday house in a foreign country, awkward dinner conversations, the "will you hit me" scene)?

Overall, this book made my heart flutter and absolutely broke it at the exact same time. I can’t wait to see how they adapt this one for the screen (I have high expectations), and for what Rooney has in store for us next.

See you next time,

Kate x

Favourite quotes:

  • “Over the summer I missed the periods of intense academic concentration which helped me relax during term time. I liked to sit in the library to write essays, allowing my sense of time and personal identity to dissolve as the light dimmed outside the windows" pg 34. (I could completely relate to this, in ever sense).

  • "Our relationship was more like a Word document which we were writing and editing together" pg 185. (This is SO meta, I love it)

  • "Gradually, the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen" pg 289. (Rooney has just summarised my life in one sentence. remarkable).

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