Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Book 1 of 2021. I have been seeing Normal People by Sally Rooney just about everywhere in the book blogging world, so I was keen to pick this book up when it was recommended to me. I like to read books that are not overly discussed at the moment, because then, I am afforded the luxury of lower expectations. Anyway, preamble aside, I was surprised by how much detail the Goodreads blurb went into, so instead of copying the whole thing, I’m sharing here only bits and pieces of the summary I had read:

Summary: “Frances is a college student and aspiring writer and the endlessly self-possessed Bobbi is her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and completely taken by her tall, handsome husband, Nick. However amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect…”

The book vaguely reminded me of a slim little story I had read years ago called Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill. “Can something be laid back and intense at the same time?” is how I had described it then and that glove fits this book too. Like Dept of Speculation, Conversations with Friends has ‘marriage’ as one of its main themes; it is, after all, another book about an affair. A trying topic, I did not expect to be so taken by Melissa and Nick’s difficult marriage. The circumstances of the affair raised issues like ego and vulnerability, poor choices and trust. But more than anything, the failing marriage portrayed how you only ever see others as extensions of yourself – paradoxically more so when you “know them better.”

But here’s the thing, what I loved the most about the book – this marriage – was not what the book was about. It was about friendship, as goes the title. I found Frances and Bobbi’s friendship interesting because it went against the odds – they were in no way alike and they were hardly ever honest with each other about their “inner worlds.” Yet, they were friends, unequivocally so; and would give each other just enough space in the event of any conflict, that their friendship somehow survived all the trials they put it through! I’ve been in friendships like that, albeit with less drama.

The writer used emails to show glimpses of all her characters’ perspectives and in doing so, showed us how their misunderstandings transpired. It was an interesting device because we saw many facets to each character, and it was hard to pin them down to any trait. Bobbi with Melissa was not the same as Bobbi with Frances; and Frances with Nick was not the same as she was with Bobbi. And the Frances we saw as the narrator, inside her mind, was not revealed to anyone at all. She cared so much about how she was perceived, she lost herself somewhere in all the theatre!

Unreliable narrator or not, I couldn’t help but call Frances two-faced! She was immensely dislikeable – not because of how closed off she was or how she changed colours, but because of how easily she let herself off the hook. Because no one knew the real Frances, no one could hold her accountable for anything – for her envy, her mistakes, her active aggression. Was she fooling herself too? They’re kids, they’re twenty one; I kept having to remind myself, as I watched her coolly carve her identity into whatever suited her then. Is anyone this deceptive?

I suppose one could call this story a portrayal of the modern idea of love, relationships and friendship – the sort of fleeting uncertain messiness. The Goodreads summary (that I clipped short) labels this lifestyle as “a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.” I can understand this too, also relate to it in some parts, but I cannot for the life of me claim to like it. And this is my issue with the book – I just don’t want to be part of this world, even if this world is very like the real world, or perhaps because it is so.

Rooney’s writing redeems the book and she leaves you with these teenie memorable moments and turns of phrase that beautify the drama.

“Afterward I lay on my side with A Critique of Postcolonial Reason propped half-open on the pillow beside me. Occasionally I lifted a finger to turn the page and allowed the heavy and confusing syntax to drift down through my eyes and into my brain like fluid. I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me.”

“I laughed to myself although there was no one there to see me. I loved when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document that we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke that nobody else could understand. I liked to feel that he was my collaborator. I liked to think of him waking up at night and thinking of me.”

Have you read the book? Or Normal People? What did you think? I guess for all my complaints, I will pick up Normal People one day, after all.

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