Conversations with Friends seems an inappropriate title for Sally Rooney’s debut novel about two young students in Ireland getting mixed up romantically with a couple in their thirties. There aren't a whole lot of conversations between platonic friends in this book, which is an examination of romantic love more than a book about friendship. The publisher describes Rooney’s novel as “a sharply intelligent novel about friendship, lust, jealousy, and the unexpected complications of adulthood in the twenty-first century.” I think this description is getting closer to what's going on here.
The main character Frances suffers through a lot of contemporary adult problems throughout the novel, but one of the big “complications of adulthood” for her is how problematic all of her relationships are. As an artist and a student, Frances likes to present herself to the world as a feminist and a non-traditionalist, and yet her heart betrays her head. How can she have a friendship with the ex-girlfriend who dumped her? How can she have a romantic relationship with a married man? How can she have an uncomplicated friendship with that man’s wife? These are the things she wants, and yet her desires and her belief system don’t always play well together.
As a girl in her early twenties, Frances is learning that her actions dictate what type of person she is, which sometimes leads her to remain completely passive. From a reader’s perspective, I found Frances’s inaction to be quite frustrating, and I had a difficult time deciding whether my frustration with her as a character was intended by the author or not.
For instance, Frances’s best friend Bobbi is also her ex-lover, and although Bobbi was the one who ended it, Bobbi still kisses Frances and holds her hand, almost as an experiment to see if Frances will still let her. Every time it happens, Frances allows it and wonders if this means they’re getting back together, but she doesn’t actively discuss it with Bobbi ever. Even in the end when Bobbi declares that she is not Frances’s girlfriend, Frances doesn’t fight back. Frances wants to be the type of unconventional woman who is okay not defining relationships, but that’s not who she is. Because she’s not ready to admit this to herself, she does nothing.
Frances’s inaction becomes even more frustrating when she was dealing with her lover Nick, who is over a decade older than her and married. Nick is the first man Frances ever sleeps with, and Frances is ashamed of her desire for Nick, not because he’s married and not because he’s older, two details she gives up to everyone willingly, even her own mother. No, Frances is ashamed of Nick because he is masculine, and as a feminist, she finds her attraction to someone so overtly masculine to be embarrassing.
All of Frances’s interactions with Nick bear the mark of her shame, of this belief that she is somehow betraying her own self and feminism as a movement. Whenever she starts to feel something real for him, she shuts down completely. She keeps him at arm’s length and tests his devotion to her at all costs. While she is able to be completely honest and sincere with Bobbi, Frances does not want to be vulnerable with Nick in the same way. Her flirtation with him always has a tinge of cruelty attached to it because, as Bobbi puts it towards the end of the novel, Nick is a man, and therefore Frances thinks he’s impervious to pain.
When reading this novel, I teetered between feeling completely engrossed during the juicy affair moments and bored senseless during long passages of Frances’s despair and inactivity. Granted, Frances is a good POV character because she is so introspective. We get to read a lot of her reflections on morality, what she wants, and who she is, all of which are in flux for her; however, because she’s a twenty-one year old, she makes decisions and has ideas that are completely maddening. If nothing else, after reading this novel, I’m thrilled to not be twenty-one anymore.
Conversations with Friends is a coming-of-age story; what I saw in Frances was a young woman on the brink of letting go of her youthful ideals, which I think the majority of us ultimately have to do to some extent if we want to be happy people who don’t completely lose our minds. Maybe it’s okay to fall in love and be vulnerable. Maybe it’s okay to desire monogamy. Maybe it’s okay to be a feminist and still not love and admire every woman you meet.
Maybe being an adult in the twenty-first century means compromising on your beliefs. Or maybe that's what adulthood has always been. If that sounds depressing, well just know it is depressing for Frances too. So does she ultimately compromise to get what she wants? I guess you’ll have to read to find out.
I gave this book 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
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