LONGING, THEY SAY: On Sally Rooney's novel Conversations With Friendsby Erin Bartnett
Conversations With Friends by the debut Irish novelist Sally Rooney is equal parts coming of age story and cultural commentary. The novel is filled with brittle humor, vivid dialogue, and angular iterations of love. It is a love story, with the syrupy sweet stuff drained out.
Frances and Bobbi are young intellectual women in college at Trinity College in Dublin. Frances is, as Bobbie introduces her, “a bisexual and a communist.” She is chilly, charming, and quick witted. She is the artist. Bobbi is her embodied, sensual, burning brain counterpart. She is the performer. Ex-partners, they remain sutured to each other’s lives and perform spoken word poetry together, read Lacan, and drink whole pots of coffee while watching Greta Gerwig films. Their relationship is enviable—they are a match intellectually and emotionally. Their conversations (about everything except their relationship), make the novel move along at a clip.
After one of their poetry readings, Frances and Bobbi meet Melissa, an “older” (thirty-five-year-old) photographer and essayist and her husband, Nick. Nick is an arguably successful but definitively attractive actor. Melissa wants to write an article on Frances and Bobbi as artists. The four begin to fall into seeing each other more often. Bobbi is infatuated with Melissa, and Frances thinks Melissa hates her. But when Melissa and Bobbi leave Frances alone with Nick, it is Frances and Nick who seem to get along in a way they aren’t supposed to. Nick and Frances fall in for one another. Frances is surprised by and attracted to Nick’s droll sensibilities. They begin an affair filled with sex that is good and makes Frances cry, and witty, self-deprecating tête-à-têtes.
The novel is written from Frances’ point of view and reads like a ruthlessly unsentimental yet sincere critique. The whole narrative is tinged with Frances’ voice – the prose ticked off with quotation marks only to signify something ironic or totally false: “Bobbi told me she didn’t think I had a “real personality,” but she said she meant it as a compliment.” This has the effect of making us even more aware of Frances' voice performing the whole story for us. We can only access what Frances hears, thinks feels. But this feels good, because Frances’ lens on the world is smart, funny, and beautiful. It’s easy to fall in love with her, and the world according to her. In this way, Sally Rooney makes us experience that familiar moment in love—that realization that there might be some other reality outside the language we use to access it, but we cannot get there, and sometimes, we do not want to go there.
Frances’s desire for Nick does not destroy her outright. She does not become some fallen woman devoid of conscience or purpose. She still writes—and writes well. Nick tells her she is an intimidating artist, and she finds this thrilling. She is not overly sentimental about what it means to write. But she talks to Bobbi less. She doesn’t think much about what it would mean to write a story, incidentally about love, with a loosely fictionalized Bobbi at the middle of it. And this is where the cracks in Frances’ narrative start to shimmer and catch the light.
The novel’s title—Conversations With Friends—comes from an inside joke between Bobbi and Frances. While Frances resents the ambiguity in her relationship with Nick, she’s less sure of it in her relationship with Bobbi. Friends continue to interrogate Bobbi and Frances for a definition for their relationship, but the two revel in the undefinable. They are more interested in the exchange than the thing itself: “We developed a joke about it, which was meaningless to everyone including ourselves: what is a friend? we would say humorously. What is a conversation?”
Sally Rooney exposes the myriad ways in which language can become the weapon we use to both nurture and guard ourselves from feeling. In her relationship with Bobbi, Frances can talk ad infinitum about the pitfalls of capitalism and psychoanalytic theory, about bad readings of 19th century literature. But she cannot talk about love, or specifically, about loving Bobbi. She cannot talk about the story she has written about her. And with Nick, at times, she stays high on ripples of witty one-liners. They linger in the language of flirtation and flattery. She does not want to talk about his marriage to Melissa. Nick does not want to talk about the depression rotting him out. Neither relationship, it seems, is willing to acknowledge a future in language.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Conversations With Friends is a love story. But it is more of a longing story than a love story. And here, I cannot help but think of the way Robert Hass defines longing in his poem “Meditation at Lagunitas:” “Longing we say, because desire is full/ of endless distances.” When I imagine a generic love story, there’s one final scene of satisfaction, one final embrace, a gratifying collapse of all that longing in a “happily ever after, etc.” And I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that Rooney gives us none of the above. But I’m glad she doesn’t. Because what Rooney is able to do instead, is capture what it means to be trapped in a relationship with oneself—besotted by desires and social and cultural norms and personal histories, and the bare desire to be liked—all steeped in loads of gleaming language. In the contemporary schematics for love, we are often left wondering: do we need to find it all in one other person? Must we find all companionship and sexual satisfaction in one place? How do we know what we actually want and what we are supposed to want?
In Conversations With Friends, Rooney illuminates that relationships, as well as art, are relational acts. We do not fall in love with one person; we fall in love with that person, and every person that made them into that person. This makes it very difficult to settle on one human to love, or one kind of love. This also, importantly makes it impossible to deify one kind of relationship or demonize another—which Sally Rooney is also careful to avoid doing. At no point does Frances lose herself completely and become the fallen woman, depraved or destroyed by her desires. And that is perhaps what is most frightening—to acknowledge the relational nature of falling in love, is also to invite more characters into the love story. Which means more instability, frustration, and uncertainty.
Conversations With Friends illustrates, with more complexity and honesty than I have yet to see—the way our desires argue with each other. Sally Rooney brings to life how the desires for companionship, friendship, love, sex and art all inform each other in the makeup of one person. What happens when we make these bundles of desires talk to each other and fall in love is Sally Rooney’s great achievement.
is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.