PFD Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year shortlist – Sally Rooney

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

This was the title on the Young Writer Award shortlist that I had the most trepidation about reading. Many friends have read and loved it, but, it hasn’t gelled with everyone.  Also, a contemporary novel about modern relationships between four younger people in Dublin – I mean, I’m old enough to be the thirty-somethings Melissa and Nick’s mother, let alone Frances and Bobbi, the twenty-one-year-old young women at the centre of the book. Being so removed from this scene myself, would I get it?

Narrated by Frances, she tells in the early pages how she met Bobbi at secondary school:

Nobody liked her. She got temporarily suspended once for writing ‘Fuck the patriarchy’ on the wall beside a plaster cast of the crucifixion. There was no feeling of solidarity around this incident. Bobbi was considered a show-off. Even I had to admit that teaching and learning went a lot more smoothly during the week she was gone.

Frances tells how she and Bobbi became girlfriends, how being Bobbi’s partner meant she was left alone rather than doing everyone else’s homework.  Their physical relationship didn’t last, but Bobbi and Frances stayed best friends performing poetry together at club nights.  Now they’re twenty-one; Frances is on an internship at a Dublin publisher, but still writing and performing with Bobbi. They meet Melissa at a poetry night and she takes their photo and wants to write an article about the pair for a magazine.

Melissa is mid-thirties, married to Nick, an actor, who is a few years her junior. When Frances and Bobbi go to dinner at their house, there is a spark between Nick and Frances, and ere long they begin an affair although Frances is understandably cautious:

I mean, you’ve never had an affair before. I don’t want to wreck your marriage.
Oh, well, the marriage has actually survived several affairs, I just haven’t been involved in any of them.

They go for it – and the dynamics between the foursome become ever more complicated – I shall say no more on that.

Frances, our narrator, is terribly insecure.  As my fellow shadow judge Rebecca has noted, she is introverted and comes across as aloof to many which doesn’t make her many friends.  Others have alluded to the similarity between Frances and Bobbi with Elena Ferrante’s Elena and Lila, in which Elena, the less showy friend narrates – I can see the similarities.

Frances is certainly a talented writer though, but despite writing and performing her own poetry, she can’t bear to publish it:

Real writers, and also painters, had to keep on looking at the ugly things they had done for good. I hated that everything I did was so ugly, but also that I lacked the courage to confront how ugly it was.

The character that most chimed with me was undoubtedly Nick. He was the trophy husband for Melissa, the handsome and successful actor going through a difficult patch.  I don’t think I ever quite got a handle on Melissa, her motives for adopting Frances and Bobbi seemed questionable. The set-up of her wanting to write an article about the poetry scene but making it just about Frances and Bobbi seemed contrived, and that jarred for me.

What isn’t in doubt is that Rooney is a superb writer. Eschewing speech punctuation, which isn’t needed the way her words flow, her text leaps off the page and grabs you. I learned that Rooney was a former European debating champion, and she has applied all those skills to her novel in the conversational batting back and forth. She also knows when to leave things unsaid, to allow us to read between the lines, but more so than that, when to tantalize us by not always providing resolution. The blurb on the hardback cover flap suggests there are many ways to read this novel and I agree with that. For me, it was about Frances growing up and coming to terms with herself more than anything else. An amazing debut, Rooney is another young author to watch.

Source: Review copy for the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel.

Read my fellow shadow judges’ reviews:   Clare, Dane, Rebecca.

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