Crown Publishing, July 11, 2017.
Conversations with Friends is an intense character study, following the lives of two young women who were once lovers and are now best friends. Frances and Bobbi are twenty-one-year-old college students in Dublin, where they perform spoken-word poetry in night clubs and interact with the various artists and literati of the city. One night they meet photo-journalist Melissa, who wants to write an article about their work, and their lives are changed forever.
Frances is cool and calm in the face of strong emotion – she is darkly funny and yet deeply serious. Bobbi is beautiful and confident, and often self-involved when it comes to understanding the emotions of others. When the two young women are thrown into the lives of Melissa and her handsome actor husband Nick, their beliefs about themselves and others are challenged in unexpected ways. Bobbi, who is confident in her attraction to women, becomes obsessed with Melissa. Meanwhile, sexually-ambiguous Frances finds Nick intriguing despite herself – he is apathetic yet attractive, and she can’t help but seek him out to spend more time with him.
At the start, Frances is mostly amused by her flirtation with Nick – it is as if she is practicing for a more meaningful future relationship, both in conversations and in the bedroom. She sees him as a negative symbol of wealth and patriarchy, which is ironic because it doesn’t bother her that her dad pays her bills. Frances’ analysis of her own thoughts and feelings are self-conscious, and her intellectual debates with friends will make you cringe with their self-aware awkwardness. In her naivete, Frances explores the complications of intimacy, and the misunderstandings that stem from email and messenger conversations – feelings are often confused, and both Nick and Frances assume the other is cold and lacking emotion when in fact it is simply lost in translation.
Throughout the novel, Frances’ various relationships take on new meanings and fill new roles in her life – with Bobbi, with her mother and father, and especially with Nick and even Melissa. Intellectual stimulation is the most important aspect of Frances’ life, and yet she is forced to reconcile herself to the physical world as well. She has always placed mind over body, but eventually health concerns force her to pay attention to her physicality and put herself first.
The conversations between friends, lovers, acquaintances, and even adversaries are always at the forefront of this intelligent, thought-provoking novel. It is a novel of ideas, although they are always applied thoughtfully to the characters and their development. At first this reminded me of another 2017 novel, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot – both books feature a naïve young female protagonist, using deadpan humour and probing intelligence to explore a troubling relationship in the age of the internet. However, Frances is much less endearing and less likeable, which isn’t necessary a bad thing. The problem for me was the ending, in which it didn’t seem that Frances truly developed or changed at all – despite all her experiences, there was no real growth, and that was disappointing. However, the strength of this novel is in its concepts and conversations, written in a unique prose style that I savoured throughout Frances’ oddly compelling journey – despite or maybe because of Frances’ many issues, I found this book impossible to put down and I will be seeking out more by the talented Sally Rooney.
I received this book from Crown Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.