Sally Rooney’s first novel Conversations with Friends encapsulates the depths, challenges and complications of friendship in the 21st century. Following the story of Frances and Bobbi, two students in Ireland, Conversations with Friends is a gripping tale of love, lust and heartbreak as each character navigates the complexities of relationships. Rooney portrays a toxic, yet somehow unbreakable, friendship and hence explores the concepts of passivity and self-esteem. Conversations with Friends is a must-read for every generation as the struggles of Frances cause the reader to reflect on their own familial, social and romantic relationships.
Bobbi and Frances are young women who perform poetry together. They used to be in a relationship when they were at school, but the novel begins with the two in a complicated friendship. Melissa is an elegant and sophisticated writer who has chosen to write an article on Bobbi and Frances, a working relationship which is the catalyst for the drama throughout the novel. Melissa is married to a handsome and mysterious actor, Nick. Bobbi and Frances are soon immersed in a society of decedent houses and wine connoisseurs as they traverse the boundary between the student and adult realms. Bobbi instantly idolises Melissa, while Frances quickly begins an affair with Nick. The complicated menage à quatre causes friction between Frances and Bobbi as, for once, Bobbi is not in control of Frances’ actions. Conversations with Friends then follows the complications of the affair and its effect on Frances’ mental health. The novel equally questions the strong political opinions of the outspoken Bobbi and the complicated family background of Frances.
Conversations with Friends can be seen as a provocative novel: the reader is forced to question our preoccupation with monogamy, heteronormativity and attachment itself. Despite the immorality of the affair, the reader cannot help but sympathise with both Nick and Frances. Regardless of the heart-warming bond between the Nick and Frances, Rooney equally creates a setting of marital discord in which Nick is subordinate to his controlling wife. However while the affair is somewhat normalised in the novel, Frances’ friends and her mother ground the book in reality as they depict her iniquity. The relationship between Frances and Bobbi is a constant enigma throughout the novel, as the bond between the two defies the category of either romance or friendship. Hence while reading Conversations with Friends I had an overwhelming sense that Rooney is seeking to challenge the essentialisms and categorisations which structure our society.
Frances is undeniably an incredibly self-conscious and insecure character as she continuously compares herself to Bobbi and consequently self-deprecates. Her fixation on her own inability manifests itself through her mental health and her actions, hence Rooney depicts the negative consequences of her toxic relationships. The topic of anxiety and self-confidence is pertinent in the 21st century as we are constantly comparing and self-criticising. As the reader realises the damaging effect of Frances’ toxic relationship with both others and herself it urges us to contemplate our own mental health and self-esteem, thus Rooney’s novel is powerfully contemporary.
Conversations with Friends fundamentally explores people and our inner thoughts. The novel suggests the importance of self-reliance as we see the damaging effects of Frances’ multiple toxic relationships. Similarly to Rooney’s second novel Normal People, Rooney explores the psychological complexity that accompanies sexual relationships as she portrays the complications of intimacy and desire. This addictive novel is a fantastic read that portrays the emotional and mental struggles of a young woman in the 21st century.
– Hattie Hansford