At one point in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, the protagonist, Frances, tells her best friend and former girlfriend, Bobbi: ‘If I could talk like you I would talk all the time.’ They have just gone out for a cigarette, leaving behind a group of friends in a café, whom Bobbi has shocked with her views on monogamy and nonchalant disregard of how her tone might be affecting them. Only Frances seems to have been impressed, silently watching her friend dominate the conversation. The line is striking in the way it encapsulates the novel: Bobbi is dazzling and controversial; Frances is not; Bobbi is open with her emotions and speech; Frances is not.
The novel is about relationships, about how young people behave when they’re in them, and what happens after. Frances and Bobbi, both 21-year-old students, meet Melissa and Nick, a wealthy couple in their thirties, and unexpected (yet perhaps inevitable) intimacies begin to grow. Conversation, as the title might suggest, is a key source of contention – Frances is smart and talented, but unable to express her emotions, and often uses her razor-sharp wit to skirt around uncomfortable topics. The characters in the novel talk, yes, but they don’t actually say much at all, and often it’s more about what’s not being discussed than what is. Rooney’s direct style recreates the effect of these conversations, and her avoidance of speech marks or any other punctuation to distinguish dialogue from narration places us firmly within the world of her characters; like them, we absorb what’s being said, but we don’t always process it, and often it falls away into the background. On the rare occasion that Frances does acknowledge how she’s feeling, the response she gets is disheartening to say the least: ‘you’re being unbelievably dramatic, Frances.’
The novel has elicited comparisons to Elena Ferrante’s portrayal of female friendships in her Neapolitan quartet, the My Brilliant Friend series, with the quiet, unassuming narrator constantly feeling second-best to her ‘brilliant’, force-of-nature best friend. Bobbi does indeed resemble Lila, with her spark and effortless beauty, and her ‘way of belonging everywhere’. Frances and Lenù form the other half of their respective duos, fulfilling the role of the naturally introverted observer who balances out the wildness with stability and quietness. But where the 21-year-old Lenù is painfully aware of her own flaws, Frances is not; despite being observant and sharp, she is hopelessly naïve and ill-equipped to process her own feelings. At a major moment early on in the novel, she begins to cry without realising it, and quickly feigns nonchalance: ‘I couldn’t stop the tears so I just laughed self-effacingly instead, to show I wasn’t invested in the crying. I knew I was embarrassing myself badly, but there was nothing I could do about it.’ Emotional outlets are very physical for Frances, which builds into something more serious as the narrative develops.
Rooney’s writing is incredibly engaging, and although the presentation of love is sometimes slightly bleak, her tone is masterful in reflecting the stage of life her characters find themselves in. Her sharp attention to detail is strikingly effective in its ability to convey meaning – on Frances’s first visit to Nick’s house, the narration includes that: ‘I brought my toothbrush in my bag’, a casual detail that says everything it needs to. Later on, following a mild disagreement, Frances receives an apology email from Bobbi and writes that: ‘for some reason I deleted it briefly, and then went into my trash folder to retrieve it almost straight away. Then I marked it as unread and opened it to read it again as if for the first time.’ It is in these moments that Rooney’s brilliance fully shines through, as she focuses on the tiny idiosyncrasies others might overlook as a way to convey character.
It is easy to see Rooney as the “voice of her generation”, the “Salinger for the snapchat generation”, as publications such as the New York Times have claimed, although these terms can often be reductive. As in Normal People, Rooney powerfully taps into an aspect of being young in today’s world; Frances, like Marianne and Connell, is emancipated but vulnerable, adept at conversation but unable make sense of her inner emotional turmoil. It is something she excels at, and readers of all ages, but particularly those who share her protagonists’ youth, can relate to.