Conversations with Friends is about two childhood friends, Frances and Bobbi, who complete each other in a wholesome platonic way (though they did once have a brief stint as a romantic couple). The women exist in stark contrast to one another within social situations, with Frances, being the shy and often reserved figure within the friendship group, frequently finding herself overshadowed by the exuberant and flamboyant personality of Bobbi.
Inseparable, they attend university together and spend almost every possible waking moment in each other’s company. Hyper-intelligent and politically active, in their spare time, they use the platform of spoken poetry to express their uncompromising views. Frances is the avid and sole writer at the helm of the material, and shares the stage with Bobbi, who, of the two of them, is the effortless and passionate performer that conveys the words with power. It is at a spoken poetry event that they first meet Melissa, a charming older woman who photographs them for a feature in a magazine. Melissa takes the young women under her wing, and it is from this point that the lives of the ladies are intrinsically changed. Invited regularly to her bourgeois home, shared with her handsome husband Nick, Frances and Bobbi’s friendship is tested by jealousy and secrets in a way that it has never been before.
In classic Rooney style, not much “happens” in Conversations with Friends. Despite that, I stayed up till 2-am to finish as I couldn’t put it down. Perhaps this is because it’s a stylistic break from some of the more heavy literature I’ve read recently or because of the fact that, from the outset, I was hooked in by the allure of the strangely dislikeable and morally questionable protagonists. It’s nice not to have an affinity with the people who are leading the story, for once.
I would say that the main notable attribute of the novel is that there are striking similarities with Normal People, the second novel by Sally Rooney. I’ll give some examples: Frances, like Marianne, is insecure and often self-destructive in her exploits. She harms herself instinctively when upset and chases an unrewarding relationship with Nick, knowing from the get-go that her decision will have devastating consequences. Marianne does the very same thing, collecting meaningless partners as a means to pass the time or at least give the appearance of general romantic interest. Are they one in the same?
Not only that, but the intimacy between Bobbi and Frances really demonstrated the powerful love of platonic relationships in a way that I found to resemble the strength and durability of Marianne and Connell’s relationship. Though the two are diverted by their separate relationships with Melissa and Nick, like magnets, they are inevitably drawn together once again. This can also be said for Marianne and Connell. Strangely, there was an almost verbatim intimate scene wherein Frances asks Nick to hit her during sex, and this very same conversation is had in Normal People when Marianne asks the same of Connell.
I was a little confused by this as, though there were some differences between the two novels, I couldn’t quite tell whether Rooney’s debut was a chance at a story and Normal People was a more evolved iteration of what she had intended to accomplish the first time. Did Rooney run out of fresh material or was she really intent on exhausting what she’d already started?
There’s some element of a narrative arc, but really the primary joy of the book is the fleshy dialogues between the characters. Intimate and real, these sections capture the essence of modern love, half in-person and half interactions stolen from text and email excerpts. I enjoyed that the book was partially in an epistolary form- Sally Rooney is fabulous at representing the trials and tribulations of modern love and the way that she writes perfectly captures the frustrations of not being able to fully express what one means through a screen. Despite this, even having read Normal People, I found some of these conversations to be quite disjointed as they weren’t distinguished with speech parenthesis, as is the convention with most novels.
In summary, I enjoyed Conversations with Friends as a light-hearted, “easy read”. There were no philosophical musings to be had and this was a welcome break for me, given my recent reading material. That being said, I wasn’t bowled over by the novel and I certainly didn’t think it brought anything innovative to the table. Unlike Normal People, I wasn’t caught up thinking about it long after I’d finished the novel, either. I’m interested to see what comes next from Rooney, whether she develops a knack for delivering the same/similar story in a different package or whether there’s more variety to be unleashed as her career continues.