Book Review – Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney is a story of intertwining and shifting friendships and relationships, infatuation, self-discovery, and learning to navigate unexpected emotions. College students Frances and Bobbi, now friends but once in a relationship, meet charismatic journalist and photographer Melissa, who becomes interested in their spoken word performances, and begins inviting them to hang out with her; this is where they meet Nick, her more retiring actor husband, whose career is dwindling. In their 30s, Melissa and Nick move in Dublin’s high and glittering creative social circles, and it’s within this context that Frances and Nick unexpectedly strike up a rapport. What ensues is a summer of complex dynamics and self-discovery as Frances is forced to look herself in the mirror, and accept that the walls of wit and dry humour surrounding her are perhaps not as impenetrable as she once thought.

The issue with hugely hyped books is that you go in with expectations and, at first, I wasn’t sure that I was going to enjoy, or be engaged by, this book beyond the surface level; but, as I read on into the second half, I found myself becoming more absorbed by the story and the characters.

Our protagonist Frances is a complex character; almost priding herself in her tendency to avoid big emotions. However, inwardly she’s an overthinker, deliberating over every little thing she does, mapping out and observing her actions with the aim of coming across as likeable, fun, interesting and ‘normal’. Rooney has a wonderful, dry way of expressing these inner quandaries. 

Things matter more to me than they do normal people, I thought. I need to relax and let things go. I should experiment with drugs. These thoughts were not unusual for me. 

Frances develops an immediate infatuation with Melissa and Nick, with their affluent lifestyle and glamorous home, and with them as a couple. As the dynamics between them become more complicated, a side of Frances emerges that takes her by surprise, as she thinks to herself, ‘that night it was clear to me for the first time how badly I’d underestimated my vulnerability.’

Trigger warning due that Frances’ means of coping when things are going badly often slide into the self-destructive, harbouring desires of hurting other people or herself, occasionally seeing these through to fruition. There are darker moments of self-loathing, with heartbreaking admissions like, ‘I felt a lot of things I didn’t want to feel. I felt that I was a damaged person who deserved nothing’. 

Bobbi, who has her own troubles, comes across as more confident and carefree; a source of both envy and irritation for Frances. Frances develops a similar kind of view of Melissa, initially being completely captivated by, and enamoured with, her but as the summer progresses she begins to view her more critically, and tensions develop between them.

In a story where people’s inability to express themselves lies at the forefront, Nick is the ultimate study in a person who initially appears somewhat bland, emotionless and indifferent; as the novel progresses, we learn more about him and, as with all the characters, guards begin to drop and truths begin to emerge.

Virtual communication is a theme which runs throughout, characters communicating through texts, imessaging and email, and this becomes symbolic of the barriers in their communication, and their inabilities to read each other properly. As Frances’ friendship and history with Bobbi comes under pressure, she finds herself searching their message history for words like ‘love’ and ‘feelings’; illuminating Frances’ pervasive need for reassurance in her relationship with Bobbi. Elsewhere she reflects, ‘people were always wanting me to show some weakness so they could reassure me. It made them feel worthy, I knew all about that.’ As the novel progresses, frank one-on-one conversations between Frances and Melissa, Bobbi and Nick provide new depth to the novel, and open up the characters to further interpretation.

There is a simplicity and aloofness to Rooney’s writing style, often coming across as purely descriptive and observing from the outside, which somewhat masks the fact that she eventually delves into her characters with more depth. The praise I have seen for Rooney implies that she writes her people beautifully, in a relatable way; to a certain extent, I find myself inclined to agree. Ultimately, this is a meditation on shifting relationships and interpersonal dynamics, a story about the effects people can have on each other, and people learning to express themselves. I enjoyed this more than I initially expected from the early chapters and, as this is Rooney’s debut novel, am interested in reading her other novels to see where she went from here.

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Conversations with Friends was published by Faber & Faber in 2017.

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Sally Rooney is the author of the novels Conversations with Friends, Normal People and Beautiful World, Where Are You. She was the winner of the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award in 2017. Normal People (‘the literary phenomenon of the decade’, Guardian) was the Waterstones Book of the Year 2019, won the Costa Novel of the Year 2018 and the Royal Society of Literature’s Encore Award 2019. Sally Rooney co-wrote the television adaptation of Normal People which was broadcast on the BBC in 2020.

2 responses to “Book Review – Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney”

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