Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
From the second Frances walks into Melissa’s and Nick’s house, she notices signs of wealth, from a dark wooden bowl filled with ripe fruit to a Modigliani print hanging over the staircase. ‘Rich people,’ she thinks, already identifying herself as an outsider and mentally preparing compliments to make herself charming.
Set in post-crash Dublin, the novel begins with Frances and her former girlfriend Bobbi performing spoken-word poetry as a double act. Melissa, an essayist and photographer, decides she wants to profile them for a prestigious magazine and invites them to her southside home, where they meet her husband Nick, a disenchanted actor. The jobs of all these people are important – they are quick to condemn the evils of capitalism, yet live off inherited wealth. A complex ménage à trois quickly develops between Frances, Nick and Melissa, although it’s really more of a ménage à quatre, as Bobbi is also involved. In fact, the great achievement of Conversations With Friends is to acknowledge how every relationship consists of more than two people, or even three. Connections overlap; conversations subvert and interrogate each other. Rooney has previously said that she is interested in capturing dynamics that don’t fit into any readily available categories, and this seems apt in a book where the characters are keen to label themselves as communist, anti-establishment or bisexual.
The bourgeois self-righteousness of these characters can be frustrating at times, particularly in the case of Frances, whose mental acuity prompts her to adopt an ironic, detached attitude to almost everything. But this is perhaps the point – and an indictment of modern relationships, where it’s cool to not care, to act unfazed in situations that demand emotional engagement. Many of the titular conversations take place online, where it’s easy to construct a droll and indifferent version of oneself – but the most interesting ones occur after relationships fracture; when friendships are forced to reinvent themselves.
Hilary Simmons works as a bookseller at Readings at the State Library Victoria, and as part of the Readings events team.