on conversations with friends

Compelling and cool, Conversations with Friends places millennial malaise and an unexpected love affair against the backdrop of summertime Dublin.

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Set in the near present, the fast-paced plot follows a pair of privileged college-aged performance poets and exes, Bobbi and Frances, as they become entangled with an older, slightly famous married couple, Nick and Melissa. After Melissa, a writer and photographer, profiles the poets for a magazine, Bobbi develops a mild crush on her, while Frances, the emotionally distant narrator, begins an intense affair with Nick, a washed-up actor with a victim complex and a penchant for self-pity.

The bulk of the story concerns the rise and fall of Nick and Frances’s romance. The two flirt by messenger, bonding over their shared lack of direction, armchair socialism, and sharp wits; Frances soon has sex for the first time with Nick, the two vacation with a small group at a French beach house, and, inevitably, Melissa discovers and cooly responds to the affair. The fallout is messy and strange.

The closer Frances becomes to Nick, the more she drifts and conceals from Bobbi. Toward the novel’s final act, a hurtful, revealing autobiographical story Frances sells for publication causes an even wider rift between the two best friends, threatening to permanently end their bond.

But the drama of the story is overshadowed by the novel’s incisive dialogue. The conversations Frances has with Bobbi, Nick, and Melissa assume a variety of forms—furtive email messages, muted face-to-face interactions, rushed texts—and the characters muse about everything from love under late capitalism to the merits of anarchism. How the group communicates seems to impact what they share: the conversations feel more honest, incisive, and contradictory when conducted electronically.

As a young narrator, Frances swiftly alternates between self-aggrandizement, existential despair, and cold detachment. She reads A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, proclaiming that she’ll become the smartest of her peers, only to then berate herself for a minor social hiccup. Elsewhere she insists she has no personality and wonders, were she to acquire one, whether or not hers would be unkind.

Rooney’s prose is exhilarating. She apparently wrote the book in three months, and the pacing is dizzying. Each sentence rapidly gives way to the next, and sudden turns in the topic of Frances’s internal monologue are common.

A literary romance tracking an affair between a younger and an older millennial, Conversations with Friends is easy to read but incredibly intelligent, and Sally Rooney definitely seems like a writer to watch.

This was my first extended experience with the author’s work, and I enjoyed her style. There’s something fresh about her writing, though I can’t yet articulate what that is. I’m thinking it has to do with the way her characters interact with one another, as well as the perspectives the younger protagonists espouse. 

This was my final selection for Reading Ireland Month 2019, and it was a great way to end the readathon. I’ll post a wrap up over the weekend, but I really enjoyed tracking everyone’s posts this month and coming across a lot of authors who are new to me!

13 thoughts on “on conversations with friends

    1. It’s really something! You can feel the amount of energy that went into this, just reading the prose – the novel moves at such a swift pace. Hope you enjoy it if you ever check it out!

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  1. Great review! I loved pretty much everything about this book. I’ve 5-starred both of Rooney’s novels and both of her short stories, but this one remains my favorite.

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    1. Thanks! This was great from start to finish – I’d expected a more traditional story based off the premise, but the plot turned out to be so fresh and smart. Really excited to check out Normal People next month!

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  2. You’ve had a great combination of Irish books this month! This one I’m kinda-sorta interested in. That’s fortunate, as the library hold list is so long that I won’t have a chance anytime soon.

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    1. Thanks! The books were all so different from each other, but I enjoyed sampling a broad mix of styles. The reviews on GR seem polarized, but I thought it was a smart and inventive take on a fairly conventional premise.

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  3. Now that the Tournament of Books is over I need to dive into the backlists for books I missed. This is one of them! I’ve heard mixed reviews as well but want to give her books at least a try.

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    1. Hope you enjoy the novel if you check it out! Her story “Color and Light” is available online at the New Yorker, and it gives you a taste of her style.

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  4. Great review! I obviously also adored this and I agree, there is something absolutely brilliant about Rooney’s writing. This book will for sure top my best of the year-list, I loved it so.

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