Hype is a strange beast.
In August, I feverishly raced through Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which were some of the best books I read this year. Mind you, I had been very, very late to the Ferrante party or in experiencing the Ferrante Fever. The quartet was published between 2012 and 2015 and was widely acclaimed. I was put off by the hype then and didn’t bother to delve into them until a couple of months ago. Boy, am I glad I did!
Something similar happened with Sally Rooney. Over the last couple of years, she has published two books. So many praises were showered upon her, that I dismissed her books with no intention of reading them. Once again, sheer curiosity took over and I decided to try out Conversations with Friends with low expectations.
And I must say I was really impressed. I guess all that hype was well justified after all.
In Conversation with Friends, we meet Frances and Bobbi, who are in their early twenties. Frances is a student and an aspiring writer and at night she performs the spoken word with her friend Bobbi.
Of the two, Frances is the intellectual one, the one with brains and wit to match. In their poetry performances, she is the one who writes the scripts. Bobbi is the extrovert – brash and more outspoken of the two.
At one of their gigs, they run into Melissa, who is a rich and successful writer. The three immediately strike up a conversation.
Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together. Melissa took our photograph outside, with Bobbi smoking and me self-consciously holding my left wrist in my right hand, as if I was afraid the wrist was going to get away from me.
In Conversations with Friends, Frances is the narrator and we learn a bit more about her past as well as Bobbi’s. It turns out that Frances and Bobbi were more than just friends, they were in a relationship. But it didn’t last.
I wasn’t betraying anyone’s loyalties by being Bobbi’s girlfriend. I didn’t have close friends and at luncheon I read textbooks alone in the school library. I liked the other girls, I let them copy my homework, but I was lonely and felt unworthy of real friendship. I made lists of things I had to improve about myself. After Bobbi and I started seeing each other, everything changed. At lunchtime we walked along the car park holding hands and people looked away from us maliciously. It was fun, the first real fun I’d had.
After school we used to lie in her room listening to music and talking about why we liked each other. These were long and intense conversations, and felt so momentous to me that I secretly transcribed parts of them from memory in the evenings.
Meanwhile, Melissa invites the two of them to dinner at her place in Monkstown. They are introduced to Melissa’s husband Nick, who is an actor. In her texts to Bobbi, Frances labels him as the ‘trophy husband.’ At dinner, Bobbi and Melissa immediately hit it off, while Nick is mostly quiet and Frances feels out of place.
Mostly Nick stayed quiet while Melissa asked us questions. Ashe made us all laugh a lot, but in the same way you might make someone eat something when they don’t want to eat it. I didn’t kniow if I liked this sort of cheery forcefulness, but it was obvious how much Bobbi was enjoying it. She was laughing even more than she really had to, I could tell.
Frances and Nick end up conversing though…and it’s in these conversations between the two, where Rooney’s flair for wit sparkles.
Do you think Melissa’s playing favourites? Nick said. I’ll have a word with her if you want.
It’s okay. Bobbi is everyone’s favourite.
Really? I warmed to you more, I have to say.
We looked at each other. I could see he was playing along with me so I smiled.
Yes, I felt we had a natural rapport, I said.
I’m drawn to the poetic types.
Oh, well. I have a rich inner life, believe me.
Soon, Frances attends one of Nick’s theatre performances, and Nick watches Frances perform at one of her spoken word events. These conversations at public events steadily evolve into private exchanges with each other, either through phone calls or texts. It is apparent that Frances and Nick have embarked on an affair.
He (Nick) was the first person I had met since Bobbi who made me enjoy conversation, in the same irrational and sensuous way I enjoyed coffee or loud music. He made me laugh.
Not surprisingly, this relationship has consequences for not only the two of them, but later for Bobbi and Melissa too.
As far as the writing goes, to be honest, there is nothing extraordinary about Rooney’s prose at the sentence level. And yet the novel has a very stylish feel to it, which I liked.
Also, this could have been any run-of-the-mill novel on adultery. Except that it isn’t. Far from it.
What stood out for me was Rooney’s keen insight into the complexities of modern relationships, how fluid they can be with no well-drawn boundaries. The dialogue and the interaction between the four characters felt fresh and lively, and Rooney does have a penchant for humour.
Rooney refuses to neatly cast her characters into well-defined slots. They are flawed and vulnerable with complex feelings, but it also makes them believable in a way people in real life tend to be.
Sure, Frances is intelligent, sharp spoken, and averse to stereotypes. Yet, ultimately she does end up having an affair with a married man, an act which by itself is so ordinary. And the relationship also highlights her insecurities. Thus, while she may have a ready answer for everything else, in this relationship she is caught quite off-guard. It makes her vulnerable and arouses sympathy in the reader.
It would be easy to judge Nick as yet another philandering husband among multitudes, and yet it is not so simple. Rooney’s portrayal of Nick is quite sensitive. He is a man who is self-aware and open to discussions as he sincerely tries to get a grip on his feelings for Frances and his commitment to his wife Melissa.
Despite the hype, publicity, and the recognition heaped by prize listings, Rooney’s books have divided opinion. On the strength of Conversations with Friends alone, I place myself firmly in the ‘like’ camp. I will be reading Normal People soon!