The huge press push behind Sally Rooney’s debut novel didn’t make me eager to read (or like) Conversations with Friends, and the blurb – promising, as it does an “endless” litany of pseudo-intellectual reflections on “sex and friendship, art and literature, politics and gender” – didn’t help.
As it turns out, there isn’t much undergraduate philosophising to trawl through in Conversations with Friends. Instead, the novel offers an unpretentious and utterly authentic account of twenty-somethings struggling to negotiate the terms of their adulthood.
The narrator is Frances, a heartbreakingly earnest, plain-faced 21-year-old who identifies herself as a bisexual-feminist-communist, with only a vague notion of what any of that might mean. On the cusp of a modern adulthood, in a world full of things she is “anti”, she has little sense of identity beyond a notion that she is clever.
This might make her sound insufferable – in fact she is completely identifiable, even lovable. With a realism reminiscent of Margaret Drabble’s early work, Rooney has created a character who is too frank and well-meaning, too vulnerable and self-aware, to disregard.
The reader is forced to share her experiences so closely that it is impossible to dismiss her: “You live through certain things before you understand them,” explains Frances. Rooney draws the reader in beneath the girl’s paltry defences, right down to her bodily experiences and emotional bewilderment, so that we emerge as bamboozled by this world as she is.
Together, Frances and her girlhood lover, Bobbi, fall for an impressive older couple. Frances soon finds herself desperately trying to reconfigure gender boundaries and sexual codes, to accommodate her overwhelming sexual craving for a married man.
As for the elders, the thirty-something couple prove hopelessly inept at navigating their own adulthood, creating an increasing suspicion that no one ever really grows up. This is compounded by the fact that Frances’ parents are hardly able to take care of themselves, let alone support their daughter.
Like Drabble, Rooney deals with the restrictions imposed by cultural heritage and an individual’s struggle to overcome them, and, like Jerusalem the Golden, this novel takes us right inside that experience, discrediting completely the reductive outsider’s diagnosis, or the sexist reading that makes the woman victim.
In his endorsement, Colin Barrett compares Rooney to JD Salinger, and there is certainly something of Salinger’s Franny about this book, not only in the nature of Frances’ crisis, but also in the incredible accuracy of the “sophomore-speak”, and the simple prose style itself.
Rooney’s prose is blunt and at times crude, leaving little room for the visceral or lyrical – but these characters aren’t very lyrical people and the register works to create a candid sense of loneliness and emotional hunger, while carrying a pacey narrative.
Unlike Salinger, however, Rooney at no point invites the reader to laugh at her characters’ contrivances or self-seriousness. Written in the first person, the novel elicits far too much sympathy to allow for satire. This is achieved through pitch-perfect dialogue and a cast of rounded, flawed, and recognisable characters.
The book is an engaging and accessible account of the new generation emerging in a changing Ireland. Most impressively, it adheres to the page-turning structure of the romance novel, while completely subverting the genre.
Conversations with Friends evades any stringent reading, serving instead to destabilise received notions of morality, sexuality and gender. Ignore the marketing guff; read the book.