The time has finally come to review one of my favourite standalones.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when writing a review I will have endless things to say…unless it’s something I loved. If I read a book and give it five stars you can almost guarantee that if I try to tell you WHY the only thing my brain will produce is an assortment of positive, but useless, adjectives. However, this is my second time through Conversations with Friends so here’s hoping that the power of repetition will help me coherently explain why I adore it as much I do beyond simply cry-saying: It’s just so good.
Who, What, Where?
Conversations centres around the mess of relationships between four core characters – Frances, Bobby, Melissa and Nick. Best friends/ex-es, Frances and Bobby, are students at Trinity who regularly perform spoken word poetry together. During one of their shows, they meet Melissa, a thirty-something journalist who asks to write a piece about them. The girls are drawn into Melissa’s upper-class lifestyle and introduced to her handsome but quiet husband, Nick, an actor who never really reached his full potential. While Bobbi is enamoured by Melissa, Frances begins a flirtation with Nick which evolves into an unexpectedly intimate affair. She soon finds herself navigating spiralling relationships, confronting deep personal insecurities, and thinking about her life and the type of person she is.
The Rooney Style
Like many other people, Normal People was the first book I picked up by Sally Rooney. At the time, I distinctly remember having trouble adjusting to her writing style with its direct prose, absence of quotation marks and nonlinear scenes. With Conversations, however, we clicked. The writing is so smooth and effortless, almost like a continuous stream of thoughts, dialogue and images. It feels like a long, get-things-off-your-chest chat with a close friend in the wee hours of the morning. Rooney’s prose seems so clean and innocuous that it’s tempting to brush it off as being simple but more and more I find myself rereading dialogue or small details, picking up on subtle nuances that enrich her scenes in beautifully real ways. Her prose isn’t for everyone but I frequently get lost in it.
It’s (Not) Just Sex
The relationship between Frances and Nick seems like something I should be adverse to. It’s an affair and a toxic one at times, too. Yet, I’m so captivated by it. There’s just something about these two shy, awkward people forming a deep connection but being unable to express it because they’re terrible at communicating about their feelings. And so, they make jokes and downplay it as just sex because they have low self-esteem and worry that if they did admit they care, it wouldn’t be reciprocated. As a result, they actively look for things to support this conclusion, feel hurt by what they find and then, in the case of Frances, lash out at the other person. Can you tell I have a lot of feelings about this relationship? I think I like it so much because it doesn’t feel idealised. Sure, there are bad moments but so many sweet ones as well.
The main reason people cite for not enjoying this book is the characters, and I get it. They can be selfish, dishonest, pretentious, privileged, plus they’re wrapped up in messy relationship drama. But, for some reason, I can’t get enough of them. Despite their tendency to frustrate, disappoint, even anger me, I love how emotionally complex and real they feel. Each person has a distinctness to the way they speak, act and think, to the point that I can vividly imagine having a conversation with them. They’re not “nice” people, but these flaws make them so much more compelling and I cared for and sympathised with them all the same.
As our narrator, Frances often bears the brunt of the criticism. People have a tendency to write her off as being spiteful, childish and a stereotypical millennial, but I have such a soft spot for Frances. She’s wormed her way into my head and heart and refuses to leave. She feels so vivid to me – this mess of loneliness, insecurity, self-destruction, and the strong desire to be loved. There are parts of her that I relate to so deeply it hurts, even the uglier ones, but mostly, I just want so badly for her to be safe and happy.
Quiet but Memorable
Conversations is not the book to read if you’re looking for something plot-heavy. It isn’t a big, flashy drama full of cinematic moments, nor is it a swoon-worthy romance to get swept up in. And yet, both times I’ve read it I’ve been glued to the page from start to finish. It’s a quiet, emotionally resonant novel about people, their lives and relationships. It looks at themes like love, monogamy, mental health, youth and belonging in very personal and intimate ways. I truly felt this book, in more ways than one, and I suppose that’s what matters most.
Conversations with Friends is unlikely to be everyone’s perfect read but, to be blunt, I absolutely love this book and it’s something I’ll continue to think about for a long time.