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Book Review: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

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Frances still considers herself one half of a duo with former girlfriend turned best friend Bobbi. The two perform spoken word together and catch the eye of older journalist Melissa, who invites them into her social circle. Both women are taken with Melissa’s sophistication, and her adult world, but Frances is particularly taken with Melissa’s husband Nick, an actor who has perhaps never quite lived up to his full potential. The two are drawn to each other and begin an affair that has far-reaching consequences.

Rooney’s debut novel is a character study where the characters do all the talking. Character-driven, this smart, subtle novel is tightly written and full of completely unlikable characters. The result is a mixed bag: Rooney does what she sets out to do, but her plotting is so meticulous and her characters so perfectly crafted that there isn’t much room for readers to get attached.

Which is perhaps the point. Rooney doesn’t rely on visual language to tell her story: she lets her characters do all the showing through their telling. They label themselves so Rooney doesn’t have to: “I’m gay, and Frances is a communist,” says Bobbi at one point. The labels don’t stop there. Rooney uses them to allow her characters to tell others who they are, or at least who they most desire to be. But they aren’t in total control of their actual bodies, and the result is what happens when desire gets the best of even the most controlled humans.

There’s a lot of great stuff here. Rooney herself is very young, and she writes beautifully (and is at her strongest) when she writes about young, smart but supremely self-destructive women. The problem is that Frances undergoes such little growth that many readers will be frustrated by the end. But that doesn’t mean that the journey isn’t worthwhile: the writing is very good, and there’s a lot more to digest here than first meets the eye.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. Hogarth/Crown: 2017. Library Copy.

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