The first book of 2021 for me was a repeated author-Sally Rooney. I bought this book before Christmas, but only now got around to actually reading it. Just like ‘Normal People’, I read it quite quickly, but unlike it, I did not entirely enjoy it. While Rooney’s prose and wonderful storytelling is still present, I did not like the story itself nor the protagonists. I tried to judge and review ‘Conversation with Friends’ in its own merit, without comparing it to ‘Normal People’, but the biggest reason I decided to read it was because how much I enjoyed previous reading experience, so some comparisons will be present. There will not be any major spoilers for ‘Normal People’, while there will be some for ‘Conversation with Friends’.
The plot is simple, two former lovers, now friends performing written words together meet a well-established writer and her husband. One of them, Frances, starts a relationship with Nick who is a married man. Throughout the novel, the readers follow the development of relationships between these four characters. Even from the briefest summary, it is clear that this is a characters-led book, which is something that Rooney is famous for. However, I really found all the people in this novel unlikable to the point where I could not make myself care about what happens to them. For a novel that invites you into the deep internal life, this is probably the worst outcome. From a technical standpoint, it is a well-written book, with a prose that flows, good structure and interesting dialogues. However, I think that focusing solely on Frances was a wrong decision. It was very hard to understand often times contradictory actions of other people without giving them the same courtesy as Frances, who can go on and on about her actions and thoughts. Protagonists of ‘Normal People’ fell under the risk of same thing happening to them, but the third person narration and the equal focus on both of them helped circumvent that.
There is not much I can say about the characters of ‘Conversation with Friends’. Melissa is a well-established author who is more direct, open and seemingly more interested in life overall than her husband Nick. On the other hand, for me, Nick read like a character from (albeit well written) fan fiction without any real motivation in life except to be with Frances. The story line of Nick’s severe mental health issues and its effect on relationship with other people felt like a huge waste. It is not often that we get narratives with male characters’ struggle with mental health and I feel like Nick’s character is a wasted opportunity. Bobbi was quite forgettable to me and although she did read like a real life person, I did not understand her character until the very end, and like I said, I could not make myself really care. I could write pages and pages about why Frances is so unlikable, but for now, I will just write that she is incredibly selfish, self-centered and capricious. Although she tried to present herself as independent and a communist throughout the novel, the reality is that she financially depended on her father and later Nick. Her attitude of not wanting to work or have a substantial job seemed extremely childish for someone who is a college student. None of them had any substantial growth or big insight. Again, for a book that does not have a lot of plot, this was what the focus should have been and it was quite disappointing to realize that they (especially Frances and Nick) have not really changed all that much.
In addition to the romance story, other themes were also introduced. Bobbi, Frances’ friend and former partner, is a student of political science and history, so throughout the novel, there was quite a lot of political discussion between characters. Additionally, most of the characters are quite wealthy or at least comfortable (that is until Frances’s allowance stops coming in) but showed some awareness of others less fortunate. Frances also (re)discovered the Bible and sprinkled some ideas from there as well. Overall, I do appreciate a good social commentary in my fiction, but in this book, they were quite awkward and unnatural. It felt like it was just a point that Rooney wanted to make in her book targeted for millennials, rather than anything that contributed to the narrative.
The biggest issue I had was the central romance. First of all, while it was not completely unexpected as there were hints of feeling being developed, it was really hard to read from start to finish. The balance of power was completely tipped in Nick’s favor, due to pretty much all the reasons and it escalated when he actually gave her some money. The way in which Frances describes their sex scenes was almost clinical and did not seem too enjoyable. (I know I said I will not compare it too much to ‘Normal People’, but the love scenes in that novel were filled with passion and yearning. ) Maybe it is just because of Frances’s personality, of being detached and cold, but they made me very uncomfortable and awkward. The idea that Melissa will instantly accept their relationship and keep opening the door to their house to Frances seemed very unrealistic and a bit out of character for her. Additionally, the conversations they led were also very stiff (pardon the pun) and sounded like two acquaintances rather than people risking it all to be with each other. In short, their relationship is quite toxic and did not help them grow, but quite the opposite. To be honest, I did not root for them and was disappointed in the ending.
At the end, I rated ‘Conversations with Friends’ 3/5 on Goodreads. Rooney’s powerful writing style and prose were still present throughout, but for me were ruined by the characters. I could not make myself care about the destiny of people so selfish they go around hurting themselves and others over and over again. I kept reading, hoping for some kind of growth, but I guess this is not that kind of story. Do you agree with this review? As always, if there is something important that I missed in this review, feel free to write it in the comments.