In Conversations with Friends Sally Rooney introduces us to the cosmopolitan and privileged world of modern day Dublin through the first person narrator, Frances. It’s a sensual and intimate account focusing on a troubled and adulterous relationship doomed to failure and regret.
Frances is at university in Dublin. She has a part time internship in a publishing house, and is a performance poet, with a professional partner called Bobbi. They are on the fringes of the radical Dublin scene, and meet artists, writers and actors at readings or performances.
Frances is from a less privileged background than the rest of the circle. This accounts to some extent for her lack of self confidence, which she hides behind a calm, restrained and ironic approach to life. To an outsider Frances appears cool and above it all, but of course she’s not.
Frances and Bobbi bump into Nick and Melissa at readings and parties. Nick is a handsome older man, and an actor with some minor credits to his name. Nick and Melissa watch Frances and Bobbi perform, and offer them tickets to a play that Nick is in. The couple are drawn closer together.
Pretty soon Nick and Frances are having an affair, which begins at Melissa’s birthday party when Nick is stoned. It’s an intimate scene and quite typical of the writing in this book. Rooney is very good at evoking the physical sensations of intimacy, and I found the extent of these desriptions quite surprising at first, coming in a book entitled Conversations with Friends. I suppose the title is ironic.
Melissa goes away on business, and Frances moves in with Nick for a few days. These scenes are again described in sensual prose revealing physical and emotional intimacy. For a while the relationship cools. Then Melissa invites Frances and Bobbi to holiday with them, and other wealthy Dubliners, in a French villa. Nick and Melissa are not sleeping together so Frances sneaks into his room at night for emotional sharing, and some more good old rumpy pumpy.
The relationship develops in its inevitable way, strewing damage in its wake. Melissa discovers the situation and is obviously angry. There is a parting of the ways, and Nick and Melissa appear to become a happy couple again.
Frances writes a short story featuring a barely disguised Bobbi, Frances’ flatmate. Seemingly in revenge for the affair, Melissa sends Bobbi a copy. Bobbi is angry when she reads it, and storms out of the flat, taking her suitcase with her. Frances is alone. There is a hospital appointment that has been booked for a while. She discovers she has an incurable gynaecological condition that puts her fertility into doubt, and means a life of regular pain. Her father, separated from the family, clearly has mental health issues. He fails to pay her monthly allowance. She goes to his house which is filthy and neglected. Her mother accuses her of being cold and unloving towards him.
It seems that everything is conspiring to make life worse for Frances. A more traditional writer might have contrived this as a kind of poetic justice. Rooney does not take that approach. Instead it seems she is just laying on the agony to stir an emotional response. This novel is chick-lit, and especially so at moments like this.
Conversations with Friends is a gripping and interesting book because the character of Frances is realised with absolute conviction. The prose is direct and simple, and the characters presented with wit and humour.
These are people whose moral compass, by Biblical standards, has gone hugely awry. Bobbi especially has all the fashionable intellectual answers about patriarchy and so on. They regard sex as meaningless and seem happy to engage is a series of sexual relationships without really considering the long term implications for others involved. It’s cool to put a brave face on it, and to share partners, to pretend not to care.
Rooney recognises that this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, but her characters don’t manage to find a way out. Their appetites crowd out more disinterested feelings and they drift along, living for the moment and wreaking havoc.
We know that someone, sometime will have to clear up the mess.