‘Conversations with Friends’ by Sally Rooney tells the story of twenty-one-year-old student and aspiring poet Frances and her friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi who live in Dublin and perform spoken word pieces together. They meet Melissa, a journalist and photographer in her thirties who wants to write a profile of their work, and her husband Nick who is an actor. Frances soon begins an affair with Nick which profoundly changes the dynamic of her friendship with Bobbi and becomes very messy very quickly to say the least.
Rooney’s characters may be too self-absorbed to be likeable but their flaws are certainly convincing. Frances’s naivety, selfishness and self-contradiction is captured very realistically, especially the reasons she gives for justifying her actions where Nick is concerned long after their relationship ought to have fizzled out. The narrative is told from Frances’s perspective and her personal observations reveal a lack of self-confidence about what she wants to do with her life. As a natural introvert, Frances is intimidated at first by the ease with which Bobbi effortlessly becomes part of Nick and Melissa’s social circle in modern middle-class Dublin. Her distant relationship with her parents including her alcoholic father is also explored, as is the way in which she deals with chronic pain eventually diagnosed as endometriosis.
Much of the attention on ‘Conversation with Friends’ will inevitably focus on Rooney’s youth, as she is publishing her first novel in the UK this month at just 26 years of age. Her debut is impressively self-assured and based on the quality of her sharply observed prose, it is also no surprise that she is a former debating champion. She is very good at writing dialogue, particularly in its more contemporary forms such as instant messaging conversations, but her real skill as an author lies in showing what has been left unsaid between the characters, how they fail to communicate properly with each other and how they deal with the fallout of the frustrating mistakes they make. There are no neat conclusions to the many strands of the story which feels somewhat appropriate.
‘Conversations with Friends’ is one of my favourite debuts of the year so far – it is very much an up-to-the-minute coming-of-age novel which is likely to resonate a lot with female millennials in particular and I will definitely be looking out for more of Rooney’s work in the future. Many thanks to Faber and Faber for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.