Sally Rooney’s prose is what I’d call simply minimalist, avoiding a flair for the dramatics, enhancing the dead pan tone of her writing and ‘Conversations with Friends’ is no different. It forgoes the luminous, theatrical and ‘literary’ writing we’ve become accustomed to.
Rooney’s work wasn’t unfamiliar to me, having previously devoured every page of her second novel Normal People. Without spoiling the plot of this book, here’s what I think:
While her dead pan, straight to the point writing is endearing and charismatic in her second novel, I struggled to find the same level of gratification in her debut novel, Conversations with Friends. The realistic dialogue, no-fuss prose and Irish charm (the novel is set in Dublin) does rank this book as a page turner, but it was the unlikable characters, severely lacking in positive traits, which made me put this book low on my list of ‘favourite reads’.
Self-absorbed, narcissistic, occasionally cruel and capricious characters can often be redeemed with moments of personal growth, and while I waited to see this come to fruition in the long three hundred and twenty one pages, I was sorely disappointed by the time I reached the last word. When the characters are un-relatable it becomes that much harder to stay invested in the outcome of the novel, which is why I am not ashamed to admit this book took me a long time to finish! Although Rooney’s writing is a nosy girls dream and entails an excitingly modern nuance, unfortunately it wasn’t enough to save the plot of the novel for me.
The entire novel hinges on the protagonists’ illicit and uncertain relationship, which leads to other relationships in her life spiralling and fraying at the seams. I constantly felt as though I was looking through murky water into the character’s lives (perhaps because I had already distanced myself subconsciously from their narcissism) because of their messy actions at every turn. I was torn between being bored and feeling more than a little uncomfortable with how the characters conducted themselves. On the other hand, I felt morbidly curious to understand the depth of their mess. I felt there was a certain lack of complexity and challenge in the more intimate, emotional exchanges between the protagonists, Frances and Nick, which bordered on the cusp of banality, thus removing whatever little sympathy I felt for the characters as they delved deeper into their unfortunate dalliance.
Human relationships with differing levels of depth can be incredibly rewarding to read when executed correctly by the author. However, I couldn’t find any thrilling plot elements or emotional curveballs which made me excited to read more. Instead, Conversations with Friends slowly burns to a half-hearted climax, resulting in a mediocre ending which makes sense in some ways when we look at the overwhelming selfishness exhibited by the characters. Rooney’s exceptional writing talent aside, this novel wasn’t quite my cup of tea, which is why I’d recommend her second novel Normal People rather than her first. It would be unfair to say Conversations with Friends isn’t worth the read, but I believe Rooney slightly missed the mark with her first novel, which she executed perfectly in her second.
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