It’s a challenging thing to write about ordinary modern life and daily interactions with friends without making it seem frivolous. Part of me was unsure what to feel about “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney at first because so much of the story casually follows the lives of a group of relatively privileged friends. The novel is narrated from the perspective of introverted young poet and university student Frances. She and her performance poetry collaborator/ex-girlfriend Bobbi befriend journalist/photographer Melissa and her semi-famous/effortlessly handsome husband Nick. Frances describes her time with this group of people as they attend book/art gallery launches, parties or holidays in France – all while conversing about politics, popular culture and gossip about each other. In particular, the story focuses on Frances’ challenging affair with Nick and the effect this has upon everyone around them. The novel builds a subtle power as it traces the disconnect between what we say, how we act and what we’re really feeling. She shows how it usually takes time and distance to really understand the meaning of what we felt and our friends’ different positions. It’s striking the way Rooney captures the sense of alienation we can feel within friendships where we often struggle to converse about the things that really matter.
This novel reminded me somewhat of Belinda McKeon’s recent novel “Tender” about the tumultuous friendship/affair a woman named Catherine had with her primarily homosexual friend James during their university years. It also felt in some ways similar to Eimear McBride’s “The Lesser Bohemians” about a young woman’s heart-wrenching tryst with an older actor. All these novels meaningfully portray the voices of refreshingly new young female perspectives on modern Ireland, but use quite different styles and focus on very different ideas. While ostensibly about romance, these stories are about women who aren’t as interested in establishing a long-term partner or husband as relating to their sexual partners as friends. They also poignantly portray the realities of sex in new ways. As well as recording conversations, Rooney includes different kinds of text messages or emails some characters send to each other. It’s easy to read different things into the phrasing of these communications and it feels familiar how Frances spends time puzzling over their real meaning as well as composing, deleting or not responded to certain messages. It’s also poignant how Frances encounters real difficulties in her life such a painful medical condition, her father’s alcoholism and strained financial circumstances, but finds it difficult to confide these matters to her friends.
Something that struck me about this novel was the way Catherine quite often feels emotionally slighted by Nick, but seldom thinks to consider the feelings of her ex-girlfriend Bobbi and how this affair might be impacting her. It seems like we often default to a state of victimhood where we feel we’re not receiving the attention we believe we deserve yet don’t realize how emotionally neglectful we’re being about people close to us that we take for granted. This leads to a lot of darkly searching questions about the real meaning of friendship and its limitations which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot since also reading Lionel Shriver’s new novella “The Standing Chandelier” so recently. I really appreciated the way “Conversations with Friends” shows how we don’t often understand our own feelings until we’re confronted with trying to communicate them to someone close to us. It’s a challenging, ever-evolving process, but this novel movingly shows how it’s one which can help us to personally grow and connect to each other.