Frances and Bobbi are students at Trinity College, Dublin. They used to be lovers, now they are best friends who perform poetry together. At one performance they meet Melissa, a photographer and journalist in her thirties who takes a liking to the two young women and invites them into her world of Dublin’s literary scene and into her house where they meet her husband Nick, a handsome, but somewhat failed, actor. While Bobbi is enamoured with Melissa, Frances finds herself drawn to Nick and it doesn’t take long for the two of them to start an affair. The affair leads to many conversations about love and relationships, private property and patriarchy, mental health, guilt and responsibility toward other, but of course it also brings about many uncomfortable situations and confrontations that make Frances withdraw more and more form her friends and family. When health issues and an alcoholic father enter the scene, the usually so cool-headed Frances struggles to stay in control but ends up losing almost everything.
As she did in Normal People, Sally Rooney proves her talent for realistic dialogue and descriptions that are always on point. For the lover of sparse, simple language there is a lot (or should I say little?) to be enjoyed in Conversations with Friends. Rooney’s almost sterile style creates a distancing effect from the character worries – which is probably not a bad thing, as her character are wholly unlikeable – and supports the emotionally draining atmosphere of the narrative. While Frances, Bobbi, Melissa and Nick are all realistically drawn, they are also difficult to emphasise with in her self-obsessed and often mean ways. We experience the situation from Frances’ perspective and her lamenting ways and incapacity to communicate are irritating, to say the least. She navigates challenging times, but doesn’t seem to learn or grow from them. Book smart and observant but not very intelligent emotionally, her mind isn’t the most pleasant place to be in for over 300 pages. Eloquence without substance might be the definition for most of these friends and their conversations. All of these things are done purposefully and done well, and I do understand why many people love Sally Rooney, but to me Conversations with Friends was too irritating to recommend it purely based on its stylistic achievements.