Conversations with Friends has earned the (dubious) honor of receiving my first 5-star review of the year. For the first 3-4 chapters in the book, I didn’t think it would, but it ended up being a compulsive read that kept popping up in my mind when I was doing other things. Conversations is a tight story about a young student, Frances, and her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi, who meet and befriend Melissa, a journalist married to a handsome actor, Nick. As Frances is drawn into Melissa and Nick’s lives, she and Nick begin to have an affair.
Having read Sally Rooney’s other novel, Normal People, I had high expectations of this book, and initially I found the character of Bobbi in particular very grating. The story is told from Frances’s point of view, who declares herself to be very ‘unemotive’, and who is perceived by most people as cold. Through Frances’s eyes, Bobbi is held up as an unattainably beautiful, anarchistic and free-spirited woman; I read her as a stereotypical ‘cool girl’ – the kind that refuses all labels and will always hold the moral and intellectual high ground. Little did I know that this characterization was – presumably – a narrative choice that would pay off in the end, as Frances realizes that the stories she tells herself about the people in her life are very self-serving; by putting Bobbi on a pedestal, Frances can excuse her own abhorrent behavior and destructive nature. It’s very possible that a more astute reader would have picked up on this a lot earlier in the novel, but I appreciated reaching that conclusion at the same time as Frances.
There are a lot of things to praise about Rooney’s writing, but what stands out for me is how truthful the characters feel. Their dialogue, emotions, and choices all feel realistic, as if Rooney wrote down the story of actual, existing people. Their thoughts and behaviors were authentic and immediately recognizable, even if I didn’t personally relate to them.