Unlike most of the novels I read – ones that are highly descriptive and littered with lyrical prose – Sally Rooney’s highly anticipated debut novel Conversations with Friends is driven through just that, conversations between friends. And it’s in these conversations that Rooney allows us to see how powerful words actually are through conversations about sexuality and politics and gender and art and society – all heard and interpreted by Frances. Twenty one, female, bisexual. The conversations are the skeleton of the novel, but it is Frances’ introspection and deep musings on them that are the flesh. While watching, and even partaking in these conversations, Frances is vying for acceptance and the ability to dupe the rest into believing that she too belongs in the world of money and art and intellect.
Conversations with Friends opens with the line “Bobbi and I…” defining the relationship that is the vein that runs through the center of the novel. It courses blood through every chapter. Frances and Bobbi met at high-school and transitioned from friends to lovers and back to friends. Bobbi is outspoken, Frances is quiet. Bobbi says what she thinks, while Frances only thinks it. Frances sees herself as one half of a whole.
As university students, they survive in a world of part-time jobs, poetry readings, and cigarettes, until they meet Melissa and Nick, an older married couple, and enter a world of money, power, and class. As the four become entangled, Bobbi and Frances’ relationship begins to fall apart, and Frances is forced to redefine herself as an individual. Is she one half of a whole, or a person in her own right? The nature and purpose of friendship is also redefined as Frances and Bobbi grapple with what (and who) they are to one another.
In the age of social media and under the power of ‘hipster-dom,’ Frances’ desire to appear smart and cool are desires that I catch myself with too. Life is framed and dictated by what others will think of me – What do my clothes say about me? My words? My actions? Sometimes I walk into an irresistibly cool London Coffee shop and look around at everyone else who seems to be so effortless in their cool-ness. But are they? Or are they all, just like me, sitting there drinking their cold brew coffee hoping to fool everyone else? It’s J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye for the internet age. Conversations with Friends communicates with precision the ache that comes with wanting to be cool, while ironically deeming everyone else a phony.
Despite becoming entangled in Melissa and Nick’s creative and powerful world it’s Bobbi Frances longs to be accepted by. But it’s also Bobbi’s cracks that are easy for Frances to see. During a heated discussion one evening Frances only pays attention to Bobbi: “Bobbi laughed, an aesthetically gorgeous laugh, a performance of total self-assurance…” and that’s just it – a performance. Frances and Bobbi know life is a performance. Bobbi is confident and composed in her performance. She knows all her lines, never misses a cue, and Frances watches her at it: “I could hear that Bobbi said this with an ironic smile, because she was aware that she was showing off.” Frances also knows exactly how to observe and adjust to her surroundings; on the first page she tells the reader, “I felt excited… already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself more charming”.
Ultimately, this book is about the show we put on to present to the world. I don’t know why I do it, or how, or if it’s even a negative thing. All I know is that, like Frances and like Bobbi, I am in control of my own persona. I’m the director, I choose the sets and the costumes, and I’m the actor. I think the problem arrives when I forget that everyone else is putting on a show too.
With a witty, yet deeply flawed narrator, Conversations with Friends is a true reflection of what it feels like to be a millennial. Frances is intelligent, hypocritical, analytical, narcissistic, creative, and emotional. Even at her worst, I was able to empathize with her because, just like me, she’s only trying to find her way in this confusing world.