I really tried to avoid the never ending stream of tweets on my timeline obsessing about Conversations With Friends.
I already fell victim to the online chatter about the profundity of Anna Burns’ 2018 Man Booker Prize winning novel, Milkman. The prose was so dense it was like trying to read treacle, and I gave up a mere few chapters in. I told myself that I would stop reading books just because everybody else seemed to be reading them, not having the money or space in my flat to spare for books which Marie Kondo would say don’t ‘spark joy’ in my life.
It was with trepidation, then, that I caved in and finally bought Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. I’m glad to say that I didn’t have to give up part way through, in fact I finished the entire book in one sitting – one of the downsides of being a fast reader is a constant battle with yourself to savour books that you truly enjoy. Rooney’s debut was certainly a refreshingly easy read after a couple of months where I regrettably haven’t had the time to pick up a book at all.
The novel documents the tumultuous affair of 21-year-old student Frances with married actor, Nick. The complex dynamic woven between Frances and her ex-girlfriend-come-best-friend, Bobbi, Nick’s photographer and essayist wife, Melissa, and Nick himself is enjoyable from the get go. There are very few surprises along the way – no big showdowns, no dramatic breakups. Melissa’s eventual discovery of the affair and subsequent reaction does not punch the reader in the face. Rather, Rooney’s novel shows the almost imperceptible effects that the passing of time has on our relationships, familiar, platonic and romantic.
Rooney handles Frances’ struggles with endometriosis, a condition that as many as one in ten women suffer from, with great sensitivity and nuance. Frances’ reluctance to tell her own mother when she receives the diagnosis reflects the general lack of awareness and understanding about the condition. The fact that the reader initially thinks Frances is pregnant starkly contrasts with the reality, which is that many women with endometriosis have problems with their fertility. The debilitating pain that Frances experiences does not take over the prose, rather, it runs concurrently with other events in the narrative which shows that pain is an ever present aspect in the lives of those who suffer with the condition.
As has been widely documented, there are distinct Marxist undertones to the novel with Frances’ uneasy relationship with her personal finances working an analogue to her unstable relationship with her alcoholic father. Melissa’s confession that her father was also an alcoholic, and her continued offers to top everyone else’s glasses up at their house parties and the house in France suggests that she too might have some demons of her own she is trying to drown. The lavish life that Melissa and Nick lead, with a beautiful house, as well as opportunities to travel for work and leisure is itself a symbol of capitalist excess that Frances seems to detest, but is simultaneously envious of throughout the book. This tension between contempt and admiration is epitomised by Melissa and Frances’ perceptions of one another.
Rooney also deals with the complicated dynamics between ex-lovers who try to be friends, with the fact that Bobbi and Frances continue to perform spoken word poetry together in Dublin providing the linkage needed for them to remain dependent on each other. The intimate nature of their performances, and their repeated blurring of boundaries throughout the novel – whether that is stolen kisses in smoking areas, sleepovers, their evident jealousy over attention from Melissa and Nick, or Frances’ ultimate betrayal in selling a story about Bobbi, there is clearly unfinished business between the duo. Their dynamic is as comforting as it is confusing, mirroring the complicated polyamorous dynamic between Nick, Melissa and Frances, wherein Frances can’t fathom Nick still sleeping with his wife, but casually mentions sleeping with someone from Tinder as if it is no cause for Nick to be jealous over dinner. Having been in a dysfunctional polyamorous relationship myself, you really do want to have your cake and eat it without your partner getting so much as a crumb of affection from somebody else.
Rooney’s novel is an intimate cocoon of the wildly messy entanglements that humans like to get themselves into – whether they should know better or not, ultimately they can’t resist.