There’s something about Sally Rooney’s writing style that feels like home. It’s familiar and welcoming. I have thought before that the way she writes can be a little objective, like even when it’s in first person there’s always some kind of detachment from the story, but I’ve come to view this as the same phenomenon of children’s teddy bears having a neutral expression of their face so that their children can project their feelings onto it – that is to say, I think Rooney’s work is that what you make of it. That makes a lot of sense to me since her characters are often in eerily relatable positions to their readers, and how the readers interact with those positions comes down to them.
So, I read Conversations with Friends, Rooney’s debut novel. I read Normal People first and it is no secret at all that I loved it, maybe a little more than Conversations.
Conversations is less lovable than Normal People. Where the latter’s protagonists start out as little babies falling in love and wondering what that means for themselves, the former’s protagonists start older, and they have bold opinions and they’re already very set in their ways. Which isn’t a bad thing at all – in fact, I relate this to being like me and my siblings; my younger sisters are so easy going and likable but then you have the older studenty one who won’t stop sharing socialism memes with people who don’t want to receive them.
The book follows Frances, an Irish student who writes and performs poetry with her best friend and ex-girlfriend, Bobbi. After a gig they meet photographer and journalist Melissa who wants to get to know the two girls better and write a feature about them. At Melissa’s house, they meet her husband Nick, an actor. While Frances and Bobbi are both 21, Nick is 31 and Melissa is around 36-37.
Frances has a self-confessed superiority complex. She thinks she’s smarter than most of the people around her, and although she hates herself, she still maintains some inkling of an idea that she’s better than everyone around her. She ascertains self-worth from being desired, but I’m not sure if she takes it also from being loved. She says that when she was first with Bobbi as a high schooler, she, for the first time, was able to look at herself in the mirror and when she’s with Nick we see her actually looking at her reflection without hating herself too much. She likes to feel desired, and in her relationships, platonic and romantic alike, takes advantage of feeling wanted. She uses Bobbi to make Nick jealous, and just when she and Nick have their lives together in their respective relationships, she at least takes the first step down the path of destroying it all when, at the end of the novel, Nick accidentally calls her instead of his wife Melissa and confesses that he would wait for her anywhere if all she did was ask. This all makes her fairly unsympathetic, so it’s a good thing she has a Tragic Backstory as well that makes up for that! She has a troubled relationship with her parents; interactions between herself and her mother are strained and uncomfortable, while she remembers her father as often drunk, angry and aggressive. Now he’s old and sad and, rightly so, not worth her sympathy.
Over the course of the novel, Frances’ periods become more and more problematic, sending her to the floor, writhing in pain and being ill. She and her mother suspect a miscarriage at first, but she’s told that she was never pregnant, and she experiences the same sickly spell again. She’s referred to an ultrasound and finds that she has endometriosis. I’m not a woman with any experience of endo but I am aware that the process of being diagnosed is extremely long and arduous. Sure, Frances has to wait months for her scan which leads to diagnosis, but it’s just the one examination that seems to confirm that she has endo. This stuck out to me as a bit too easy, and maybe even rushed, like Rooney just wanted to have it in the plot. I’m not sure if Rooney herself suffers with it, maybe she wanted her own experiences to be in the story, or maybe she wanted to raise awareness to the issue; if either of these are the case, they are valid and understandable, but I found that the endometriosis subplot never affected the rest of the story to the point where it could have been taken out. While Frances is alone, dwelling on relationship drama with Bobbi and Nick, she suffers with the symptoms of the disease, takes careful note of how they affect her day-to-day life, and in a spell of exhaustion and pain, writes a long email to Bobbi that spills her heart out and makes Bobbi return to her, restarting their relationship. Ultimately, I feel that more time on the endo plot would be welcome – more pages about the process of going from symptoms to diagnosis to treatment, maybe some allusion about how else it can affect people with it.
Regardless, I missed Conversations from the second I put it down. There’s so much happening that it made me feel like I really was there with Frances, involved with every aspect of her life with her. She was problematic enough that she made for an interesting narrator, someone who I wanted to scold and bitch about because she made mad, ill-intentioned decisions. But her redeeming qualities ultimately make her a realistic person that you could see in your friend group – you probably do have someone just like her in your friend group.