Conversations with Friends: The Genius of Sally Rooney

He 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.”

A while ago I read and reviewed the superb Normal People by Sally Rooney and came to the conclusion that it had the makings of a future classic. Rooney has an uncanny ability to capture the modern world, and more specifically modern relationships, better than anyone I’ve read in some time. Her prose is tight and minimal whilst conveying so much meaning. 

It was with great anticipation that I came to Conversations with Friends. I think you’d struggle to find a bookworm who hadn’t heard of one of these books. The hype around Rooney seemed to reach a fever pitch over the summer and Instagram was awash the covers of her two novels. Personally I could only avoid getting swept up in this hype for so long. The hyperbole surrounding Rooney was simply too much to ignore. 

I’ll begin by saying that Conversations with Friends did not disappoint. It matched the creative highs and the genius Normal People. In fact it was far superior read compared to Normal People. The characters felt more rounded and likable. There were undeniable similarities between Marianne and Frances; both intellectual, socially awkward with troubling family backgrounds and bewitchingly beautiful. You should hate them but you don’t. Each stumble through complex relationships with school friends during their university years. 

In Conversations Frances’ affections are split between impossibly handsome, and much older, actor Nick and gregarious, antagonistic Bobbi who is “everyone’s favourite”. Whilst Frances remains very much in love with the latter, with whom she now performs spoken word, she embarks on an affair with Nick. The book is more than these love stories, it’s full of complexities and complications all narrated by through the vulnerable, self deprecating reflective thoughts of Frances.  

Frances, like many modern women, has a very limited view of herself, constantly comparing herself to others, and she believes that she comes up short each time. One of my favourite sections of the novel sees Bobbi give her a dressing down about this attitude and the effect it has on her relationships with others. 

You underestimate your own power so you don’t have to blame yourself for treating people badly. You tell yourself stories about it. Oh well Bobbi’s rich, Nick’s a man, I can’t hurt these people. If anything they’re out to hurt me and I’m defending myself.”

The plot of Conversations is also better developed than that of Normal People. We explore more of the dynamics of people’s relationships, there is a much larger cast of characters and simply there is more action. Rooney can write slow burning drama, giving it the sheen of mundanity which covers everyday life no matter how dramatic things get. As it is so slow burning you never lose the sense that something will happen.  

For me Rooney’s genius can be found in the way she writes about relationships and in her understanding of people’s inner workings. I could quote huge sections of this novel to back up this point and share the sections which swept me up, leaving me both envious of her talent and inspired to pick up writing again. I’ll share the following which might be one of my favourite pieces of prose I have read this year. 

I loved it when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document which we were writing and editing together …. I liked to feel that he was my collaborator. I liked to think of him waking up at night and thinking of me.”

My advice is to go and wrap yourself up in the beautiful minimalist prose Rooney so elegantly creates. 

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