As I read Conversations With Friends I couldn’t help thinking of The Country Girls and Bonjour Tristesse, not because the stories are the same, but because it’s a rite of passage novel with a voice that rings so true for our times that it could have the same shelf-life as those two classics. It has its weaknesses, but I was always prepared to overlook them for two reasons: the intriguing character of the narrator, Frances, and the unexpected subtleties in the character of her lover, Nick, who at first sight seems a fairly conventional love- or lust- object for a young girl. Nick is an actor, ten years older than 21-year-old Frances, and married to the rather intimidating Melissa, a ‘slightly famous’ writer. And he’s a real Adonis.
Frances, on the other hand, sees herself as plain and unmemorable. She constantly compares herself to her beautiful friend Bobbi, a brilliant, outspoken feminist with a razor-sharp mind who takes no prisoners. It’s Frances who writes the poems they perform together as standups, but it’s Bobbi who’s the star onstage. And yet other people are intimidated by Frances. They see her as mocking their conventional ways and their banal ideas. She’s the one who has the power in the relationship with Nick. It’s Frances who first kisses him, and it’s Frances who goes to his house when Melissa’s away and makes it clear she’s come to have sex with him. Nick never knows what she’s thinking. Although she expresses to the reader her deep feelings for him, she covers them with a nonchalant façade as if all she’s interested in is the sex. She doesn’t understand herself what’s going on inside her. She doesn’t understand what’s going on inside Nick. His perfect exterior makes her think his life must be easy, but as the book goes on we see that under that handsome exterior he’s a frailer, and much more ordinary, character than she is.
What a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive
as the saying goes, and it’s a tangled web here between Frances, Bobbi, Nick and Melissa, but it’s not because anyone sets out to deceive. It’s because we deceive without knowing it in the face we show to the world that’s so often at odds with how we really are. It’s no accident that Nick’s an actor.
This 4-person relationship is at the heart of the novel, but minor characters and their struggles with life are very convincingly drawn, as in Frances’ alcoholic father and her sturdy, good-hearted mother, and the horrible Valerie, the editor Melissa is so desperate to please. And it’s funny and clever:
Bobbi and I had always shared a contempt for the cultish pursuit of male physical dominance. Even very recently we had been asked to leave Tesco for reading aloud inane passages from men’s magazines on the shop floor (83)
Whenever I got a ‘brilliant’ [on an essay] I took a little photograph of it on my phone and sent it to Bobbi. She would send back: congrats, your ego is staggering. (34)
This is Sally Rooney’s first novel. She’s a writer to watch.