book review

In Sally Rooney’s Smart Novel, Conversations With Friends, the Narrator Strives to Matter

The first novel by the 26-year-old Irish writer Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends, wears its influences on its sleeve. The narrator and her friends are fans of Twitter poet laureate Patricia Lockwood. They watch Greta Gerwig movies, and like Gerwig’s most famous character, the narrator is named Frances. The novel’s blurbs and marketing materials invite comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis and J. D. Salinger, but those signals indicate little more than that you’re opening a novel about young people written by a young person. Frances and her friends, at age 21, are a little too old to be precocious in the manner of a Salinger character, nor are any of them desperate cases like Seymour Glass. They aren’t transgressive like Ellis’s pretty monsters. None of their struggles are out of the ordinary. Rooney has the gift of imbuing everyday life with a sense of high stakes, and it’s hard to imagine Conversations With Friends appearing without Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Tetralogy” and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series as immediate antecedents.

Like Ferrante, Rooney puts her narrator in awe of a brilliant friend: Bobbi, Frances’s classmate from convent school, first love, and now spoken-word-performance partner. At a high-school dance, Bobbi “was radiantly attractive, which meant everyone had to work hard not to pay her any attention.” Like Ferrante’s women, the pair are of the left, but their communism, however firmly professed, is mostly gestural. When Bobbi acts too cool for school, as when the pair are smoking outside Dublin bars with male poets, Frances does the talking. “This meant a lot of smiling and remembering details about their work,” she explains. “I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things. Bobbi told me she thought I didn’t have a ‘real personality,’ but she said she meant it as a compliment. Mostly I agreed with her assessment. At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterward think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.” There’s a useful plasticity to Frances’s persona, but of course a narrator can’t just smile and remember things. She’s the one who shapes the story.

The central question of Conversations With Friends is how much of an actor Frances is in her own story, whether it’s her struggle or the case of a passive onlooker being jostled by stronger personalities. Frances and Bobbi meet an older couple, Melissa and Nick, and rectangular romantic tensions soon become obvious. Nick is a 32-year-old actor and Frances soon enough finds herself checking out shirtless photos of him online, and they begin an affair. Frances rationalizes her part in it by figuring his marriage has gone cold, that as an older man he’s the one in control, that she’s helpless before his good looks, and that he doesn’t really love her anyway. The little flirtations and many emails that lead to this muddle are presented in great, near diaristic detail, and it’s here that Rooney bears a resemblance to Knausgaard. As with Karl Ove in My Struggle: Book 2, Frances is given to episodes of self-harm when things don’t go her way in her affair with Nick. At one point she punctures her thigh — as bloody if not quite as dramatic as Karl Ove’s face cutting after being rejected by his future wife. But whereas Knausgaard always portrays his alter ego as a frustrated hero on a romantic quest, Rooney’s heroine finds herself tangled in a web not of her own weaving.

Like Karl Ove, Frances is a child of divorce with an alcoholic father. Karl Ove’s late father was a violent menace, more given to bouts of rage before he took to drink than after. Frances remembers her father throwing a shoe at her when she was little, but it’s his later dissipation that brings her shame. Any of her infrequent visits to his house involve some tidying up on her part, washing dishes piled in the sink, binning left-out trash, some of it rotting. He calls at all hours of the night, slurring his words and incoherent. He soon flakes in providing Frances’s monthly allowance, and for the first time she has to take a job, pouring coffee. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for Frances when it comes to her money troubles, even as she takes note of how much richer everyone else in the novel seems to be. She lives rent-free in a flat owned by her uncle, and 21 is a fairly late stage to start earning a wage. A tossed-off short story she shows to one of Melissa’s friends ends up in the hands of a lit-mag editor who offers her €800 to print it.

The story is about her best subject, Bobbi, and when Bobbi finds out about it, she’s incensed, but as with most of the conflicts in Conversations With Friends, the feud is short-lived and the pair even return to each other’s arms. Somehow the entire novel manages to remain within the neutral territory of its title. Rooney can make the stakes seem high even when they’re obviously low, and she does so without resorting to Ferrante’s melodramatic swoops or Knausgaard’s existential freakouts. Partly this is a by-product of Rooney’s control of tone and her disciplined use of plain language even when she’s getting off her most charming lines. A larger reason for the novel’s appeal is simply Frances’s youth and naïveté, her natural role as an object of sympathy (especially during a couple of scenes at the hospital), as well as the sense that we’re witnessing exactly what it feels like to be naïve in 2017. But a few times the spell is broken, and it’s usually because Rooney’s characters’ extreme politeness and eminent reasonability leap off the page, as glaring as a typo. Frances learns who she is by listening to her friends tell her about herself (usually stating judgments the reader has already made), but occasionally these chats devolve into soothing coos of mutual reassurance. “Okay … thanks for telling me that,” says Frances to Nick. “It’s okay, it doesn’t make you a bad person,” says Nick to Frances. Conversations With Friends is a novel of delicious frictions delivered at a low heat.

*This article appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Book Review: Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends