This is an interesting book. Yes, the narrator is self-involved and awful; at times it is very hard to root for her, and on the surface, the story is boring and deserving of hard eye-rolls. But when you dig below the surface, and apply a little compassion, everything becomes fascinating. The narrator doesn’t seem to really care about anything, like she’s observing her own life rather than living it — all veneer no substance — but I found it easy to forgive her. What I saw was a person completely consumed by external gaze and anxiety, a product of a culture that commodifies everything, including and especially women. Her good and authentic qualities are held captive by the narrating voice of what she guesses other people think, but those good qualities shine through from time to time. To me this book is a modern coming-of-age story that follows the narrator as she learns, painfully, to throw off the weight of external expectations and perceptions.
The degree to which the narrator’s discomfort in her own skin is the reader’s discomfort is evidence of Rooney’s talent. It’s hard to like this book, because you feel as awful and twitchy reading it as the main character feels every day. But like our disconnected narrator, Frances, we keep going, keep making connections where possible, keep following the flashes of authenticity, and keep trying to climb into a life of meaning. For all her mental and physical illness, Frances is still surprisingly functional. She creates art that moves people and she builds relationships that resemble love, and she serves as a reminder of just how many of us in the non-fictional world are bumbling through life damaged and sad and making a lot of bad decisions, but still doggedly trying and still managing to coax a bloom or two out of a pest-ridden plant in dry soil.