Conversations with Friends
Conversations with Friends is a book about four people: two ex-girlfriends and best friends, Frances and Bobbi, and a mysterious married couple, Nick and Melissa. After a chance meeting at one of Frances and Bobbi’s spoken word poetry performances, Melissa introduces the pair to her handsome actor husband, Nick. The narrative follows the four’s relationships and attraction to one another.
Since this is a book a lot of people have already read, for my review I wanted to discuss Conversations with Friends (CWF) and Normal People, and how I think they compare.
In Frances there are definite elements of Marianne’s personality from Normal People. They’re both young and often naive, have low self esteem which potentially stem from difficult home situations, and involve themselves in harmful sexual behaviour to mask their vulnerability. Like Marianne, Frances is unable to own up to her feelings out of fear that she will be viewed as weak. The ‘conversations’ alluded to refer to the words that go unsaid and the miscommunications that occur when their feelings aren’t expressed.
To me, Normal People felt comforting and familiar, whereas CWF felt much more scandalous. You might want to be or be friends with Connell and Marianne, but you wouldn’t want to be friends with Bobbi, Frances, Melissa, or Nick. Though Connell and Marianne have their faults, ultimately as readers we are rooting for them and their romance. In CWF, however, I don’t think Rooney’s aim was for us to empathise with these characters. I felt that at times I struggled to understand Frances and Nick (both in terms of their motivations and total disconnect from their privilege). Frances is selfish and unlikeable, she makes bad decisions, and her emotional intelligence is at zero. Meanwhile, Nick is unhappy in his marriage to Melissa and moderately successful career as an actor, but lacks any impetus to change his situation. This isn't necessarily a critique, it’s more to say that I got different things out of each book.
I also don’t think we’re meant to read it as a book about cheating - Rooney wouldn’t make it that simple. All four characters have some sort of strange connection with one another, such as Melissa and Bobbi’s obvious attraction to one another and Bobbi’s friendship with Nick. Although Nick and Francis’ relationship is the biggest thing to happen in the book, each of these connections are given weight within the narrative which I thought was interesting.
Overall, I loved both books but for very different reasons. Both are modern romances with feminist elements thrown in. Normal People is your usual boy meets girl but is told from two alternating perspectives of the main characters. The issues they face are largely a result of rubbish communication skills, whereas CWF is a narrative much more governed by the external factors that play on Nick and Frances’ relationship and was just generally a lot more unorthodox in its themes.
Now to wait for the release of Rooney’s next book.