‘Conversations with Friends’ might well have been called ‘Frances & Bobbi’. Sally Rooney’s meaning of ‘conversation’ includes every intimacy in a relationship. In their graduate school lingo, her main characters call it the gender revolution. Two young women, Frances and Bobbi,  will live through the joy and tribulation as blushing revolutionaries in Ireland today. Despite stumbles, they keep the banner aloft, gender isn’t a hermetic box, but a broad landscape that leaves plenty of space for variations in love and friendship.

 

Bobbi is a very pretty graduate student, articulate and sharp, who seems destined to be a university professor. She is already capable of putting everyone straight on current critical thinking and steers a firm course against accepted shibboleths. Her parents, whose views she despises, are wealthy and support her at university. She doesn’t hide the fact that she is an unrepentant lesbian. Bobbi’s friendship with Frances began in convent school. They afterward lived together as a couple and have separated while remaining close as the novel begins. Bobbi describes Frances, in brief, as a bisexual and a communist.

 

Frances, like Bobbi, doesn’t see eye to eye with her parents. Comfortable but not wealthy, they help pay for her graduate studies. Her politics, like Bobbi’s, remain in the realm of opinion, something to argue about with other students. Neither young woman does any political work campaigning or organising, and their noble attitudes can seem at times to be a question of style, not far removed from the fashion choices to which Rooney’s novel gives much attention.

 

At twenty-one, Frances hasn't Bobbi’s self-assurance and is given to self-loathing. She considers herself plain-looking. Her talents as a writer and her academic success can’t ward off the strange feeling that she’s in danger of disappearing as a person. It’s hard to know whether her spiky repartee is meant to boost her confidence or to declare her withdrawal from competition. She doesn’t appear to know either. She weeps a good deal, even more than other of Rooney’s people who are a tearful breed. She leans toward self-harm, often calming the riot of her inner life by cutting her body. It’s a kind of ritual that ends with her careful application of a bandage. Frances’  fragility, physical as well as mental is emphasised in what is surely a point scored in the gender revolution. Description of her distress and pain during her menstruations doesn’t let us forget that she is a woman.

 

Crises arise when the model of conduct Frances has chosen for herself conflicts with her unreasoned impulses. The confusion that results makes her life a constant drama. That it is a drama within her own head or about matters that otherwise presented would strike us as trivial changes nothing. We are interested. We want to know how she sorts her life out. By making the novel an account of Frances’ thinking, its wrong turns, honourable mistakes, and irrational detours,  Rooney reveals much about contemporary Ireland.

 

Consider religion. The Catholic Church has met strong opposition in recent years. Bobbi and Frances feel obliged to boast that they don’t remember the words of the many prayers they said in their convent school. They are apparently non-believers but surprise us by their curiosity about the life of Jesus, a regular subject of argument. In a moment of depression, Frances reads the Bible and takes refuge in a church where before fainting she indulges in a kind of praying. Their friend Melissa, who also went to a convent school, feels she has to explain that she finds “religious occasions like funerals and weddings ‘comforting in a kind of sedative way.’”

 

Rooney’s pervasive use of electronic instruments to tell her story probably isn’t meant to single Ireland out as a world leader in such contrivances. It’s more like her personal signature as an up-to-date novelist. ‘Conversations with Friends’ is very much a novel of manners—or changing manners—crossed with an epistolary novel. Its conversational exchanges are as pointed and loaded as the lines of a classic play. Instead of an exchange of letters, emails fly back and forth in the small hours. Cell phones are more present than minor characters. Frances says in an ‘action’ scene: “I wrote a sample message, and then deleted the draft in case I might accidentally hit send. Then I wrote the same thing over again. I sat staring at my laptop screen until it went black”. Here she is when an email so struck her she got up from her desk: “My MacBook screen had gone black and radiated a perfect rectangular glow from the reflected ceiling light. I sat back down, logged out of my email, and continued reading a James Baldwin essay“. 

 

Rooney’s descriptions of sexual give and take are of a startling precision. Yet they are free of any prurience or, for that matter, of any rapturous sighs. It’s as if she is saying, “All this talk about sex has taken the wrong turning. Let’s begin again with a fresh look”. Does she feel Ireland needs instruction in these matters? Despite its graphic detail, however, there is something naive about her word pictures. We could be witnessing a demonstration of sorts, two employees of a department store stepping out from behind their counter to introduce a new product. What goes on in Frances’ head while engaged in sex with her partner Nick appears less like passion and more like anxiety about missing her cues. As for Nick, his robotic gallantry makes the reader wonder if Rooney realised she wrote a comic scene.

 

“[…]sex with men, how weird”, says Bobbi the sapphist, after a gossip session with Frances. Although Bobbi’s rapport with Frances is the backbone of a novel that purports to tell all, we never learn what they do together in bed besides discussing the failings of their acquaintances. This daintiness on homosexual matters is strange indeed in view of the sex-manual clarity about the ways of heterosexuals.

 

Bobbi and Frances’ now toned-down relationship is perturbed when they become involved with  Melissa and Nick. This well-to-do married couple in their thirties belongs to the professional, semi-bohemian art world. Nick is a familiar male from the Rooney repertory, passive, ultra polite, and chary of declaring his feelings. Frances begins an affair with him that remains clandestine despite her and her generation’s refusal of hypocrisy and insistence on truth-telling. This is partly because Nick wishes to safeguard his marriage, partly because Melissa is a cultural figure of some power that shouldn’t be antagonised and partly because none of the involved have completely thrown off the traditional views they claim to decry.

 

The connection between Bobbi and Frances endures. We dare not call it a friendship, remembering Bobbi’s rebuke to Frances: “Do I call myself your girlfriend? No. Calling myself your girlfriend would be imposing some prefabricated cultural dynamic on us that’s outside our control”. That’s the voice of the gender revolution whose theme music we often could barely hear in the tumult of the updated adultery melodrama. But Frances’ irrational impulses haven’t gone away. Her yen for renewing her affair with the serviceable Nick is satisfied on the last page.

 

Peter Byrne

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Sally Rooney: ‘Conversations with Friends’, 2017, London, Faber & Faber, 321 pages, ISBN 978-0-571-33313-4.

Frances Chats with Herself