Talking ’bout My Generation? Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #2

The first thing to note about a novel with “Conversations” in the title is that there are no quotation marks denoting speech. In a book so saturated with in-person chats, telephone calls, texts, e-mails and instant messages, the lack of speech marks reflects the swirl of voices in twenty-one-year-old Frances’ head; thought and dialogue run together. This is a work in which communication is a constant struggle but words have lasting significance.

It’s the summer between years at uni in Dublin, and Frances is interning at a literary agency and collaborating with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi on spoken word poetry events. She’s the ideas person, and Bobbi brings her words to life. At an open mic night they meet Melissa, an essayist and photographer in her mid-thirties who wants to profile the girls. She invites them back for a drink and Frances, who is from a slightly rough background – divorced parents and an alcoholic father who can’t be relied on to send her allowance – is dazzled by the apparent wealth of Melissa and her handsome actor husband, Nick. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, and before too long Frances falls for Nick. The stage is set for some serious amorous complications over the next six months or so.

Young woman and older, married man: it may seem like a cliché, but Sally Rooney is doing a lot more here than just showing us an affair. For one thing, this is a coming of age in the truest sense: Frances, forced into independence for the first time, is figuring out who she is as she goes along and in the meantime has to play roles and position herself in relation to other people:

At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.

I couldn’t think of anything witty to say and it was hard to arrange my face in a way that would convey my sense of humour. I think I laughed and nodded a lot.

What will be her rock in the uncertainty? She can’t count on her parents; she alienates Bobbi as often as not; she reads the Gospels out of curiosity but finds no particular solace in religion. Her other challenge is coping with the chronic pain of a gynecological condition. More than anything else, this brings home to her the disappointing nature of real life:

I realised my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.

Rooney writes in a sort of style-less style that slips right down. There’s a flatness to Frances’ demeanor: she’s always described as “cold” and has trouble expressing her emotions. I recognized the introvert’s risk of coming across as aloof. Before I started this I worried that I’d fail to connect to a novel about experiences so different from mine. I was quite the strait-laced teen and married at 23, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relate to Frances and Bobbi’s ‘wildness’. But this is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing that you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering that sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality.

With its prominent dialogue and discrete scenes, I saw the book functioning like a minimalist play, and I could also imagine it working as an on-location television miniseries. In some ways the dynamic between Frances and Bobbi mirrors that between the main characters in Paulina and Fran by Rachel B. Glaser, Friendship by Emily Gould, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker, so if you enjoyed any of those I highly recommend this, too. Rooney really captures the angst of youth:

You’re twenty-one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.

I’m working on it, I said.

This is a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did. Rooney is a tremendous talent whose career we’ll have the privilege to watch unfolding. I’ve told the shadow panel that if we decide our focus is on the “Young” in Young Writer, there’s no doubt that this nails the zeitgeist and should win.

The conversations even spill out onto the endpapers.

Reviews of Conversations with Friends:

From the shadow panel:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books

Dane’s at Social Book Shelves

Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks


A life in books

Lonesome Reader

26 responses

  1. I think this is one we can agree on, particularly your Paulina and Fran comparison. I came away from this novel feeling it was quietly brilliant despite the fact that I’m nowhere near Frances’ and Bobbi’s generation. As you say, it deals in universals. Thanks for the link.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m looking forward to seeing Rooney at the shortlist readings event. Everyone loves an Irish accent!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, and I still feel like I wouldn’t like/relate to this, for similar reasons (generation gap etc) but, maybe I would? It’s lovely when books surprise you like that!


    1. Thanks. I actually think you might love it, especially the banter and occasionally snarky tone to some of the exchanges 😉


  3. This kind of reminds me of “Next Year, For Sure”. I didn’t think I was the right audience for it – mainly because the characters were so much younger – but I ended up loving it. Maybe I should add this to the list!


    1. Yes, I think that’s a good point of comparison. The central married couple have an open relationship, but that gets complicated and they both feel jealousy over the other’s choices. Like you ask at the end of your review, they have to decide whether it’s possible to love more than one person at once.

      I did think the generation (and experience) gap would be an issue for me, but I just focused on the universals of the situation and could really relate to Frances’ being young and lonely and purposeless. I thought a lot about my Master’s year in a big city.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Being surprised by how much you liked a book is a wonderful feeling. It can remind you that your “limitations” are often of your own doing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. An even bigger generation gap for me, being 20 yrs older than Melissa and I did worry about that – however, I’m now 50 pages in and much to my surprise really enjoying it, although I dislike all of them apart from Nick at the moment!


    1. Glad to hear it. “Likable” characters — that would be a good talking point for us! Most of the negative Goodreads reviews mention not being able to stand the characters.


  6. What an interesting sounding book and well done to the author for managing to make it universal. I had my moments but was generally v sensible, with a mortgage at 25 but I quite like reading about wild youth!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gosh, a mortgage at 25! I’m 34 and home ownership seems like an impossible dream. Then again, we live in the southeast. (We do have a number of friends who own homes, but all of them had significant parental assistance.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m a decade older than you and bought a flat in a run-down part of London before the East London line and Jubilee Line extensions! I did have a bit of help in the form of the money that had been saved up for my wedding, but had to live very frugally once I’d done it, as they offered dodgier mortgages then!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. P.S. Liz, I just spotted this Murdoch comparison in the Times’ Books of the Year write-up! “Like a millennial’s version of Iris Murdoch’s satiric comedy, A Severed Head, Rooney’s stylish debut novel depicts an entangled quartet straining to keep emotion at arms’ length from sophistication.” I’ll be joining you for that one in March and will have to see if I spot the similarities.


  7. […] marriages, and so on. There’s a lot of very good dialogue in this book – I was reminded of Conversations with Friends – and Neve’s needy mum is a great character, but I wasn’t sure what this all amounts to. As […]


  8. […] fairly wrong. There is sincerity and feeling here; it’s just very often hidden. As Rebecca notes, for a novel that signposts so clearly its interest in communication, an awful lot of the […]


  9. […] (The other options are Outlandish Knight by Minoo Dinshaw, The End of the Day by Claire North, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, and The Lauras by Sara […]


  10. […] it didn’t matter in the end. If you haven’t already heard, the prize went to Sally Rooney for Conversations with Friends. She’s the first Irish winner and the joint youngest along with Zadie […]


  11. […] Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: An Irish college student navigates friendships and an affair with a married man. This is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality; a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did. […]


  12. […] always appears in his dressing gown. In one 2017 year-end recommendation for Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, I saw it compared with A Severed Head, and I guess I can see why: the love quadrilateral, the […]


  13. […] People by Sally Rooney [Sept. 6, Faber & Faber]: Much anticipated follow-up to Conversations with Friends. “Connell and Marianne both grow up in the same town in rural Ireland. The similarities end […]


  14. […] Conversations with Friends was one of last year’s sleeper hits and a surprise favorite of mine. You may remember that I was part of an official shadow panel for the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, which I was pleased to see Sally Rooney win. So I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up novel, which has been earning high praise from critics and ordinary readers alike as being even better than her debut. Alas, though, I was let down. […]


  15. […] to sympathize with in the main character. If you’re a fan of Sally Rooney’s work (especially Conversations with Friends), you’ll want to pick this up as soon as you can, even if you don’t expect to relate to someone […]


  16. […] month (see Kate’s introductory post) we start with Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018). I loved Conversations with Friends but wasn’t so enamored with Rooney’s second novel (see my review), so I haven’t been tempted […]


  17. […] Besotted by Melissa Duclos and Conversations with Friends by Sally […]


  18. […] rare readers who didn’t think so much of Normal People, so to me this felt like a return to form. Conversations with Friends was a surprise hit with me back in 2017 when I read it as part of the Sunday Times Young Writer of […]


  19. […] Feigel (and Mary McCarthy), My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Expectation by Anna Hope, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, and The Animators by Kayla Rae […]


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