July 14, 2023 opinion

Rooney’s debut is a must-read for young people. Conversations with Friends review

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Sofiya Tkachenko in Vienna, Austria
Rating: filled star filled star filled star filled star filled star

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Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn in Conversations with Friends (2022)

Picture by: Enda Bowe/ HULU - © 2022 Hulu

Sally Rooney is now one of the biggest names in the publishing industry, known mostly for her 2018 novel Normal People.

Published in 2018, Normal People followed Connell and Marianne in their exploration of youth and the complications of love. The book won the 2019 British Book Award for Book of the Year and was shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Book Awards for Best Novel. In 2021, Rooney cemented her position as an internationally recognised writer with Beautiful World Where Are You.

But Rooney’s debut was back in 2017 when she published Conversations with Friends. The novel seems now to be rediscovered in the wake of Normal People. It received a lot of recognition, including being adapted by Hulu into a television series last year (Normal People was serialised in 2020).

Yet, even though Normal People got more praise than Conversations With Friends, it is the first of Rooney’s novels that gives a more intimate glimpse into the life of a young woman.

Conversations with Friends is a story told from the perspective of Frances, a seemingly cold, unemotional, rather hostile twenty-one-year-old writer. The plot follows her twisted relationships with a married couple, Nick and Melissa, and her ex-girlfriend-turned-best-friend, Bobbi, all set against the Dublin writing scene in the early 21st century.

What makes you fall in love with the book is the main character. Frances is a college student studying English literature who has few ambitions for her future. She writes poetry, which they perform with Bobbi. I cannot call her likeable or enjoyable, but she is accessible and real on a level that makes you feel for her experiences as if they were your own. Rooney makes you truly relive moments and thoughts you believed were unique to you, an experience which allows you to feel understood.

Frances struggles with comprehending her relationship with parental love, her emotional vulnerability and her body. These issues may seem to be present in the life of any 20 year-old but the way Rooney elaborates on them is unique. She comes to terms with the feeling of love, which differs from the representation of love in the media or books. Her love is confusing, exciting, anxious, and even hostile at times – it is like a breath of fresh air in the world of novels full of intensely sugary feelings.

Another thing is how Rooney describes relationships, especially the protagonist’s relationship with Bobbi, her best friend, with whom they perform poetry. Frances explains Bobbi to us as eccentric, opinionated and irresistibly attractive. They met in high school and had a romantic relationship, which ended on a not entirely clear note. It shows us that interestingly universal experience of discovering queerness in yourself, in a person closest to you, when you are young and at the same time makes you wonder whether them being the only people in their lives at that time of discovery made them get into a relationship.

We soon discover that even though Frances is not entirely confident in the reason behind the start of their relationship in the past, she loved Bobbi and felt commonality with her on a deep level to this day. They even share a kiss at a time when Frances feels conflicted with her feelings. It is not apparent whether it was a romantic embrace or a platonic one that is common to their relationship, which makes you wonder whether the security offered by Bobbi is what still keeps their friendship going.

As we do not notice a lot of commonly friendly feelings between them, sometimes even a splash of jealousy from Frances, it is a conflict that makes us tick. Though what we observe a lot throughout the book is Frances´ fascination with Bobbi, almost to a level of idealisation, which Bobbi faces in an episode of the book, saying, “You think everyone you like is special”. These words not only unveil the reader from Frances´ romanticisation for a moment but also make us understand how much of an untrustworthy narrator Rooney made us follow.

As political is the romantic relationship between Frances and Nick. It starts with a crush that swiftly evolves into an affair, which, because of Nick’s marital relationship with Melissa – a writer doing a profile on Bobbi and Frances – does not seem as immoral as it usually would. It even makes you question the concept of marriage and wonder whether the dysfunctionality of Nick and Melissa’s marriage is a common occurrence. Or perhaps it is not dysfunctional at all? Sometimes it seems healthier than most marriages you encounter in your everyday life!

Throughout the first half of the book, you notice Frances denying the possibility of her feelings becoming more powerful, it seems as if she came to terms with the impossibility of a long-lasting relationship. Which, predictably enough, changes, but the internal moral struggles with breaking up a marriage that you’d think should’ve been there are almost absent. She knows that he will not leave his wife, but she also accepts that she loves him, which at some point seems like another way to hurt herself by striving for something so unattainable and unreachable.

Effectively, Sally Rooney did a fantastic job levelling with the reader on many personal, almost gentle levels. This makes this book a must-read for young people – teenagers, those in their 20s or even 30s – who want a light read that also touches you and makes you ask questions you never thought would occur.

Written by:

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Sofiya Tkachenko

former Editor-in-chief

Kyiv, Ukraine | Vienna, Austria

Born in 2006, Sofiya is originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, but now, because of the war, she has relocated to Vienna, Austria. She is interested in writing about culture and politics, especially the current situation in Ukraine and the world as a whole, but is planning on studying Biology in Vienna next year. 

Sofiya joined Harbingers’ Magazine as a contributor in the spring of 2022. A few months later, she took on the role of the social media and the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter editor. After half a year, her devotion and hard work promoted her to the position of editor-in-chief of the magazine – in September 2023, she took the helm from Sofia Radysh, who stepped down having completed her one-year term.

In her spare time, Sofiya organises charity poetry events and is working on multiple projects regarding the promotion of Ukrainian culture in Europe.

She speaks Ukrainian, English, Russian, and a bit of German.

 

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