I’m probably the last book blogger (at least in the UK, who likes this sort of thing, etc…) to read this book. The hype around Sally Rooney has been quite something, and I often have mixed feelings about hype. Often with “popular” novelists, especially female ones, I find that the novels that get the most hype are the ones that are the most easy, the most accessible, the most palatable to the most people. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, in fact it’s actually a good thing – for the author, their agents and publishers, and for readers, after all we want as many people to read things as possible. But if you’re me, a truly unique pleasure, then it’s a bit different. I never liked ‘chick lit’ (the term still makes me shudder) or rom com novels, and I usually like books that challenge me a bit and give me something entirely new, that push me to learn or discover. I realise that this is not the case for everyone. There is absolutely nothing wrong with reading something that’s easy, that you just enjoy without having to be challenged and learn something. But that’s me. I often think, what is it about this story that is worth it for me? Why should I give myself to this particular book? What makes this book special? There are instances in which I’ll read things that are similar to something I’ve read before, but that’s usually because I love the author – for instance I powered through all of Sarah Waters’ books because I just loved them so much (and to be fair they are not all exactly the same, they just have certain elements in common). But you see my point.
There’s also the marketing/PR factor. If a book is easy to market and publicise as ‘everyone will love this’ then that just puts me off a bit. Perhaps I am just a bit cynical. I also think the thing I fear is a generic book that’s kind of blank and isn’t saying anything new or groundbreaking or really very interesting. What is the author trying to achieve with this novel? If it’s just warming your heart then I’m usually not interested. For me, that’s what my favourite sitcoms are for. And Nora Ephron movies (although Nora does also challenge me at the same time, so it’s a win-win there). When it comes to books, I need more.
So perhaps you can see why I haven’t read Sally Rooney until now. It was actually an article about her in the Sunday Times Culture magazine a few weeks ago that convinced me to try out her books – even though this was part of the slightly ridiculous marketing and PR push for her new novel. The article made a point of the fact that it wasn’t an interview, that she’s a bit media-shy and doesn’t want to be famous. This obviously just makes people want to know more about her, and it works on me (I am after all a Donna Tartt superfan). But what really intrigued me was the idea of how much autobiography might be in Rooney’s novels, or at least how much of her own self she puts into her characters. I’ve always found this a fascinating area of literature, ever since my A-Level English Lit teacher told me that T.S. Eliot’s life was not important when interpreting The Waste Land and I just could not agree with her. Even if a book is completely different to the writer’s life and experiences, who they are will always have an influence on what they write. How can there not be something of the writer in everything they create? Even in some small way, even if it’s not always demonstrable? I know that this is something I do in my own writing at least.
What also appealed to me was the idea of coldness, of rejecting emotion – this is certainly important in Conversations with Friends. This was mentioned in the article I read and it got to me, as it’s something I can relate to. I’m just as emotional as the next person, but my coping method is often to push away strong or overwhelming emotions, because wouldn’t life be easier if I didn’t feel so strongly about things? Having now read the novel I can see that this is something Frances does. It’s probably partly down to being twenty-one, being a student, a poet, and someone willing to do spoken word performances, but she also has a troubled family, few friends, and an obvious aversion to being drawn into a passionate life, a life where all your emotions are out on display all the time. More than once she says that she likes to be a bit of a mystery, or at least agrees with other people when they say this. She also hides her emotions or covers them with spite or anger, especially with Nick. He often says to her that he doesn’t know what she’s feeling – or whether she feels anything at all. This really struck a chord with me, and added an unexpected layer of complexity to Frances and to the story as a whole.
I think for about the first third of the novel, maybe until they’re in France, I quite liked it but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Early in Frances and Nick’s relationship I started to think they were a bit boring and the story wasn’t so compelling. But once we got a bit deeper into their feelings, into the issues between them and the reasons they were drawn together, it got a lot more interesting and I was glad I had kept reading. In some ways, we get to know them and their relationship in the same way that they get to know each other. I think Rooney is excellent, in this novel, at demonstrating the process we go through in learning about and getting to know another person. We see everything from Frances’ perspective, so at first both Melissa and Nick are kind of ciphers, sometimes stereotypical, and then as we progress they come more and more into focus. Melissa I think remains somewhat unknown throughout the whole book, and while this can feel frustrating it’s actually a very clever move by Rooney, as Frances keeps her at arm’s length and does not make the effort to get to know her more than she needs to. Obviously it’s different with Nick, though you can see there are times when Frances both does and does not want to know more about him. It was also a very interesting choice to have her learn certain things about him from other people, and then consider how this affects her view of him; and then of course he reveals those things later himself, with more detail, and this brings a little shift in their relationship and changes things a little for Frances. There is the grimly inevitable point that we can never really, truly know another person to their core, and everything that goes with this; but also that sometimes we don’t want to, or we avoid knowing someone deeply, and while sometimes this is fine, sometimes it’s actually not helpful. Sometimes it would be better to know more, to look deeper, to engage more with this person. A lot of Frances’ decisions, wise or not, are driven by self-preservation and fear of vulnerability – her own and others. When we don’t want to deal with our own emotions, we also don’t want to deal with anyone else’s, which drives us to push people away and be cold or spiteful as Frances sometimes is with Nick.
These explorations really made me love Conversations with Friends and made the whole experience more compelling. I also genuinely wasn’t sure what was going to happen at the end, which is quite rare. Less compelling for me was Frances’ relationship with Bobbi, as this was clouded by my opinion not only of Bobbi as a person but also of their relationship as a whole – I didn’t really get why Frances wanted to remain close to her; but I could also see that they validated each other a lot and relied on each other deeply. Again, for me at least, this was a clever move by Rooney. People are not always what we want them to be, and we don’t have to like everything about them, but they can still serve a purpose and play an important role. I think if Frances had found a strong connection to another friend, or had a more supportive family, then perhaps Bobbi would not have remained such an important figure in her life for so long – but that could just be my biased opinion, and not what Rooney was trying to demonstrate. Obviously Bobbi is also there to play off against Nick in Frances’ mind and heart, and to show her the pros and cons of her relationships with both of them – and to the experience of becoming close with someone and also holding someone at a distance. I don’t know. The point is I think the complexities of Frances’ relationships with both of them were very believable and relatable and real. Sometimes some of the characters could be a bit opaque or neat, but for me Frances was entirely real, and this added to that.
And then the ending. As I said I wasn’t entirely sure what was going to happen, and this was great. There was a point at which the book could have ended quite neatly, but then it kept going and I was less certain of what was going to happen. I really appreciated this, because this was more real. In life there are rarely neat endings to things, especially romantic relationships, and even when we want things to resolve in one way or another they often don’t. I think some readers will have opinions about Frances’ choices at the end of the book and disagree or judge her, but I liked the complexity and nuance, even if it wasn’t as nice and neat as it could have been (also I find it weird when people judge a book character or hold their flaws against the author – they do not owe the reader likeability). This complexity made the ending and the whole story so much deeper, so much more intelligent and insightful, so much more like real life. While it might be frustrating to some readers I think the ending was bold and challenging, and ultimately a good choice from Rooney.
I know that Rooney’s second novel was adapted for the screen and was a huge hit (though I haven’t read or seen it – rest assured I plan to), and I think Conversations with Friends would also adapt quite well. As long as it was sensitively cast, and there was a way to effectively convey Frances’ inner life, it could be a really brilliant mini-series I think.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is that despite my trepidations about popular fiction, I was proved wrong in this instance and completely loved this novel. I have since purchased copies of both Normal People and Beautiful World, Where Are You (which really intrigues me because it’s about a writer) and will blog about them in due time. I’m so, so glad I read Conversations with Friends and that I’ve had this opportunity to explore my issues with hype and popularity, and to think more about the connection between this and the actual books, and the writers themselves. I’d love to hear more opinions and insights about these topics, so I’ll be sure to respond to any comments below, or to messages on Twitter/Instagram (@lizzi_reads). I will also look out for reviews of BWWAY before I read it, and will post my own review as soon as I can. If you’ve read all the way to here, thank you for your patience with this waffling blog post. I will try to be more succinct in future.
Conversations with Friends was originally published by Faber in 2017. I read the the paperback edition, pictured above.