Review: Conversations with Friends

I am very late to the Sally Rooney train. If I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have jumped on it at all if my friend hadn’t specifically requested this review. And it does count as queer literature, so at least one of my boxes was going to be ticket. Sally Rooney, if you’ve been living under a rock like me for the past three years, is one of, if not the biggest name in literary fiction at the moment. From what I can tell, Rooney’s shtick is to write unsavoury yet human characters, and write them so damn well that you’re just going to read it anyway. Rooney’s prose is bare, and her choice to forego quotation marks or frilly description means it is easy to slip into the narrative and let it take you where it will.

The plot is basically nonexistent in this character-driven work. There’s a bit of university work, adultery, and an improbable trip to mainland Europe – all of which have become calling cards of Rooney, and typify her post-Irish, gentrified Dublin setting. Mostly, however, there are the character relationships, which slowly unravel and reveal themselves to be more complicated and broken than you could have guessed at the start of the novel.

Well, she’s not my girlfriend as such. We’re sleeping together, but I think that’s a way of testing the limits of best friendship.

Frances is that brand of female character who, if she’s straight, is incredibly jealous of her cooler, more conventionally attractive friend. If she’s queer, she gets her heart broken by them. Somehow, Frances manages to be both these versions at the same time. Insert vaguely bi-phobic joke here. The layers of the narrative unpeel as Frances tries to convince the reader – or perhaps herself – that it is simply jealousy she is feeling. Bi/pan representation is still relatively sparse, and Frances is an interesting portrayal: the urgency of her relationship with Nick combined with the murkiness of her relationship with Bobbi makes for a dynamic, queer, and non-performative read.

You think everyone you like is special, she said … I’m just a normal person, she said. When you get to like someone, you make them feel like they’re different from everyone else. You’re doing it with Nick, you did it with me once.

Bobbi is relegated to the middle class Irish it-girl, and sizes up to the caricature precisely until the moment she doesn’t. Rooney plays into the unreliability of narrators quite well, with this being one of many examples of how she strips away the blindfold and reveals how clueless Frances has been for most of the novel. I would argue that this would have led Conversations with Friends towards a (very specific kind of) 5 stars. Unfortunately, what character development Frances shows during this stage is ultimately undone by the novel’s cynical ending.

I read this novel alongside Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and can confirm that they sit well together as Sad Girl BooksTM. In fact, their narratives are quite similar at first, with that young, talented, white girl writer favourite of the publishing sphere. But where Plath’s protagonist, Esther, is endearingly naïve, Frances presents a modern self-consciousness which is painfully lacking in self awareness. Although this makes it harder to root for her, it does not make it any less of an intriguing read.

A modern Millennial take on relationships set against a privileged Dublin background.

But is it gay?
There’s strong bi rep and light lesbian rep. The narrative doesn’t explore sexuality so much as the myriad of layers which make up queer relationships, romantic or otherwise.

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