Conversations With Friends. Sally Rooney.

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 Durrell, 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 show and Frances with it is circling the drain and about to end in isolation or worse, things kind of end up… okay.

The love story with Nick is hot romantic (the sex is terrific), but Frances persists in needing some adolescent-type strokes 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 I was reading a dimestore romance. But the couple banter perceptively and intelligently about their 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 feel 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 too 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 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

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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