Rooney, Sally. Conversations With Friends. Faber & Faber, London, 2017. F; 9/18.
Mixed feelings, mostly positive. I was hooked by an excerpt that appeared in Granta from Rooney’s latest novel Normal People. The characters were interesting and that later novel has had much more positive reviews than Conversations. I would call the writing in the novel I’m reviewing transparent, meaning I wasn’t as delighted by turns of phrase and tropes like I’ve been by Nabokov and Lawrence Durell, as by a clear direct perception of characters and ideas. And that’s this novel’s greatest – maybe only – strength. Although the characters are a pleasure to see so clearly, they are a difficult and mostly unhappy little crowd.
I usually enjoy good stories about young people especially in high school where Normal People I think is set, whereas Conversations mostly takes place in a university. (PLOT ALERTS sprinkled in the following.) Narrator Frances is twenty and reflects on relationships with Bobbi (a high school lover and close friend a bit like the love-hate nemesis Lila in Ferrante’s novels), an older couple the male (handsome 32-year-old Nick) of which she falls in love and has an affair with, and her parents. Frances has spontaneous-seeming nasty episodes that sound histrionic until we find out she has endometriosis, an incurable painful menstrual-related problem. And just when it looks like the whole plot and Frances with it is circling the drain and about to end with isolation or worse, at the end things are kind of… okay.
The love story with Nick is hot romantic (the sex is terrific), but Frances persists in needing some partly adolescent-type things which Nick doesn’t provide: he loves me, he admires me, he holds me special among women, etc. I couldn’t escape at times feeling like I was reading a dimestore romance. But the couple banter perceptively and intelligently about their own and one another’s feelings and we enjoy that through the transparent style, in spite of one of them being the first-person narrator. Frances is smart and objective alongside being a typical 20-year-old girl grad student.
Seeing it again as a highlighted note it somehow doesn’t look as good as when I ran across it reading, but here’s an example of an idea seen transparently:
Bobbi and I had always shared a contempt for the cultish pursuit of male physical dominance. Even very recently we had been asked to leave Tesco for reading aloud inane passages from men’s magazines on the shop floor.
The presumption of feminism is muted by Frances’s objective reserve. That reserve represents the writing style and might give us a bit of an autobiographic look at Rooney, who may like her character practice partly-false humility to be on the safe side:
I certainly couldn’t tell her what I found most endearing about (Nick), which was that he was attracted to plain and emotionally cold women like me.
Frances may be covertly fishing for kudos, but at the same time she works out stage-of-life consistent things like niceness versus power, the extent to which she does things for effect, and (as I’ve said) Nick’s failure to recognize and meet her not-particularly-realistic expectation of emotional satisfaction in a relationship with a married man: “He had screwed me up in his hand like paper and tossed me away.”
In the end, for her smarts, reserve, believable coming-of-age, ambivalence about issues like feminism, and learning hard lessons I like Frances, and liking her like Rooney too. I’ll download Normal People once it hits Kindle. 8.8/8.6