Sally Rooney’s second novel – a years-long tale of two on-again, off-again lovers who can’t quite seem to ever get it right, but whose lives would be thrown entirely off course without each other – in many ways builds on her first. There’s the same interrogation of masculinity, the millennial experience, one’s social responsibility as a relatively privileged white student, the integrity of the relationships we form in our modern society of message histories and sexting.
Again, there’s the protagonist who drifts into eating alarmingly little, and again there’s a scene or two in a supermarket. But where Conversations with Friends seemed at times to veer towards being ever so slightly bleak in its vision of a student’s life and loves, this second novel is a much more compassionate, much more tender novel. This has to do in large part with its protagonist Connell, a complex and contradictory, but ultimately authentic and sympathetic figure, through whom the text unpicks the nuances of contemporary masculinity, as seems the necessary task of feminist fiction being written today.
At the beginning of the novel, the story seems to be more Marianne’s than Connell’s. It is through her eyes we admire the popular, athletic, covertly book-reading Connell from afar: from behind the pages of a book, as indeed Marianne herself does every lunchtime, every day. For she begins as the novel’s outcast. For anyone who lacked somewhat in popularity points during their time at secondary school and had an especial knack for cultivating particularly inconvenient, unlikely crushes on those at the other end of the social spectrum, it comes as a glorious fulfilment when Marianne and Connell – whose mother works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house – one day strike up a conversation containing the all-important admission: “I like you.”
A secret, sexual relationship follows, but Marianne must refrain from letting on, from telling anyone, because Connell is too embarrassed – or rather too scared – to admit to his friends his dalliance with the infamous Marrianne, regarded as strange by her peers. The scenario is a reversal of their social inequality – Marianne with the cleaner and mansion, Connell with the working single mother and terraced house. It’s a compelling romance, and both characters tug sufficiently at the sympathies of the reader.
Once they arrive at university, however, the tables are turned, as Marianne becomes the popular one, surrounded by an army of questionable friends (there is a particularly penetrating account of a toxic friendship in the form of the ever-disquieting Peggy), and Connell the outcast. For me, this is where the novel really found its footing. With the shift in the narrative perspective from focusing more heavily on Marianne during the school years to Connell once at university, we are presented with a more complex and more authentic character for the focus of our sympathies. If what makes Elio and Oliver of Call Me By Your Name so compelling is their capacity for contradiction, for being more complex than the logic of a novel would usually allow, this is also the case with Connell. It is really his coming to terms with his male identity which serves as the psychological focal point to the novel.
In one particularly vivid instance he becomes uncomfortably aware of his capacity to hit Marianne, if he wanted to, despite her perceiving him as “big and gentle, like a Labrador”. Connell deals with depression himself, and there’s a wonderfully touching account of his seeking student support. There’s another especially profound moment when, discussing his male privilege with Marrianne and Peggy, Connell says, “It’s not that enjoyable to have.”
Indeed, the novel as a whole digs deep into questions of the state of modern masculinity. It is significant that it is Rob (Connell’s seemingly one-dimensional jack-the-lad school friend, who takes to showing his male friends the naked pictures of his girlfriend on his phone) who, entirely beyond the pages of the novel, descends into a depression which results in his suicide. After his funeral Connell remembers Rob’s embrace after he scored a goal for the school football team one day, and there’s an intensely moving account of the effects of male socialisation on young men’s ability to deal with and convey their emotions effectively and healthily, their feelings “forced into smaller and smaller spaces, until seemingly minor events [take] on insane and frightening significance.”
There’s also the ominous figure of Connell’s inappropriate and ultimately assaultive teacher, Miss Neary, who looms throughout the novel. But where, were the roles revered one would hope allegations would be made, outrage vented, during school Connell’s friends merely make light of Neary’s inappropriate advances. They use them as a means of bolstering Connell’s image, his perceived masculinity, when really – and Rooney ensures the reader is aware of this even if none of the characters ever feel ready themselves to admit it – he is a vulnerable figure.
It’s issues like these that the novel raises that make it pressingly important in today’s climate where the mainstream feminist discourse all too easily falls into vilifying all men as unfeeling (note this is exactly what male socialisation does in denying men their feelings), as a threat immune to the vulnerabilities of women – when really it is sharing these vulnerabilities that makes us all human. The novel teaches that if we continue to deny men their feelings there’s little reason to be surprised when they become monsters. It is, then, a necessary novel. A novel that speaks to the current climate.
There’s an entire sub plot I haven’t touched on, largely because to me it felt superfluous. Marianne’s dead father, and now her brother Alan, are abusive figures which has something to do with the fact that she develops, during the latter part of the novel, an uncomfortable relationship with submission in her sexual and romantic encounters. It’s somewhat unsettling and doesn’t add all that much to the novel, beyond showing that – yes – although Connell is lovely, some men can be abusive too. The subplot seems underdeveloped and unresolved, and yet as a reader I’m not entirely sure I wanted to read any more about it.
As a whole though, the novel succeeds in all the areas one could ask of it: it delivers convincing, compelling characters, Atwood-ian, thought-provoking deconstructions of the social structures at play within our society today, and an at least partly satisfying conclusion. I would argue the blurb’s claim to “exquisite[ness]” would be better suited to the flyleaf of an E. M. Forster novel; however, the novel remains a compassionate and ultimately helpful contribution to modern fiction, and modern feminism too.