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Conversations with Friends

By Sally Rooney



Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, A modern romance about relationships and interpersonal dynamics.

Synopsis

In Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, two college friends living in Dublin, Frances and Bobbi, meet and befriend an intellectual, married couple in their thirties, Melissa and Nick. Frances feels an attraction towards Nick, which she comes to realize is mutual. Meanwhile, Melissa and Bobbi are drawn to each other. Over the course of the next few months, this tangled foursome navigates the complexities of modern romance, love, friendship and betrayal.

(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)

Detailed Plot Summary

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
See the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of Conversations with Friends
Quick Plot Summary

In Part One, Frances and Bobbi, 21-year-old college students in Dublin, are a spoken-word poetry duo. At the beginning of the summer after their junior year, they befriend an older couple, Melissa (37) and Nick (32). Melissa is a semi-famous essayist/writer, and Nick is a handsome actor.

Frances's parents divorced when she was young, since her father was an abusive drunk, but he still gives Frances an allowance which she feels guilty taking. Frances also tends to self-harm when she is upset. Frances's mother encourages her to be forgiving of her father.

Bobbi is gay, Frances and Melissa are bisexual and Nick is straight. Frances and Bobbi previously dated for a year in high school, but are now platonic. Meanwhile, Melissa and Nick are going through a rough patch in their marriage and no longer sleeping together. As the duos spend time together, Frances and Nick develop an interest in one another, while Melissa and Bobbi are more drawn to each other.

Eventually, Frances and Nick begin an affair. (Nick mentions to Frances that he has never cheated before this, but Melissa has in the past.) When Nick soon goes out of town, Frances feels miserable without him, but she acts coldly towards him when she feels insecure. Meanwhile, Nick sends mixed messages. In August, Frances and Bobbi end up taking up an offer to vacation with Nick and Melissa at a villa in France. Frances and Nick resume their affair, but Nick admits he still loves his wife.

In Part Two, in late August, Frances and Bobbi return to Dublin. Bobbi needs housing and moves in with Frances. Meanwhile, Frances is dismayed to realize that she is in (unrequited) love with Nick, and she has sex with a random guy off Tinder. She immediately tells Nick, who accuses her of rubbing his face in it. She also asks Nick to hit her after they have sex, but he refuses.

When Frances has a bout of abdominal pain and bleeding, she is hospitalized and an ultrasound is scheduled. After a second bout and blackout, Bobbi and Nick take care of her. The next day, Nick tells Frances that he has confessed to Melissa about the affair, and Melissa knows they will continue seeing each other. However, Melissa tells Frances that Nick ultimately won't leave her (Melissa). She also says that Nick is someone who will say what you want to hear and is so passive that he wants a partner who will take all responsibility for his actions in relationships. Despite the revelation, the foursome remains friends. Nick also confides in Frances about how he was depressed and ended up in a psychiatric treatment facility the previous year, which is when his marriage started getting rocky and when Melissa began her own (now terminated) affair.

Around this time, Frances is broke because her father has neglected to deposit her allowance. Melissa's mentor, Valerie, hooks Frances up with the editor of a literary magazine who offers generous compensation to publish a story that Frances wrote about Bobbi (which is somewhat unflattering), which Frances neglects to tell Bobbi about. When Bobbi finds out, she is furious and moves out.

In early November, Frances gets an ultrasound, and the doctor says she has endometriosis, an incurable uterine disease that causes pain and possibly infertility. Nick also tells her that he and Melissa are sleeping together again. Soon, Nick and Frances break things off, and Frances purposely cuts herself, badly.

At the end of the month, after another bout of pain and fainting, Frances finds herself at a church, praying to God. Afterwards, she finally reaches out Bobbi to apologize. They have an honest conversation about their break-up. Bobbi tells Frances that Frances tries to convince herself that others don't care about her in order to justify treating people badly. Frances admits she still resents Bobbi for breaking her heart. The two end up sort-of getting back together and growing closer again.

The book ends with Nick accidentally dialing Frances's number a short while later. They talk about what went wrong and he says he always knew it wasn't going to "work out", but the conversation ends with Frances saying "come and get me", implying that they will ultimately resume their messy affair.

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Book Review

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney came out back in 2017, but I’ve been curious about it ever since Normal People gained such popularity. I didn’t like Normal People, but plenty of other people did (or at least they liked the Hulu adaptation of it). I guess I was just wondering how I’d feel about her writing in the context of a different story.

The Good Stuff

I’ll give her this much, Rooney is good at reaching in and exploring those subtle in-between moments in interpersonal relationships, and she manages to do it without expending a lot of unnecessary words. She also has a knack for illustrating the thought processes and frustrations of uncertain relationships that most young, urban people inevitably find themselves in at some point.

A part of me felt distracted by the triviality of it all, since it’s still basically a book about some girl pursing a toxic relationship, but I do think Rooney sets up an interesting dynamic between the foursome in the book. I imagine, especially for twenty-somethings, this will be a fun novel to dissect, especially since the dynamic shifts and what you know about each of the relationships shifts throughout the book.

Frances, our protagonist, acts dispassionately, but actually gets quite attached to people. Meanwhile, Nick is very accommodating, but to the point of not taking or even wanting responsibility for his actions. He and Frances end up in a messy affair and it’s debatable who has more control, more responsibility and more power in their relationship. The same questions can be asked of all the main relationships in the book, really — between Frances and Bobbi or between Nick and Melissa, etc. And as individuals, there’s not clear-cut answers on who is morally superior, a nicer person or a better person than another.

Basically, if you like analyzing or overanalyzing people and relationships, there’s a decent chance this book will serve that purpose regardless of if you even like the book or not.

Some Criticism

There are large swaths of Conversations with Friends that are very similar to Normal People. I was actually a little surprised how interchangeable the two books are. The female leads are basically the same. They are guarded, but intellectual young adult women. Both are less flashy looks-wise than their peers, but still attractive. Both are privileged in some ways, but with abusive fathers. They have similar self-destructive tendencies as a result, with one lead preferring sadomasochism and the other engaging in self-harm. They both develop mildly toxic relationships with conventionally attractive, but withholding and depressed men. One being the popular guy at school and the other being a handsome actor. (And in both books, Rooney omits lots of punctuation, and in both cases it seemed to be unnecessary and pretentious.)

Given the similarities, it’s no surprise I ended up having similar feelings about this book as I did with Normal People. There’s an air of detached pretentiousness and self-centeredness in Rooney’s writing that I just don’t click with. Her novels are about modern romance, centered around groups of young urban intellectuals. She writes with a sparse, cool prose that explores a lot of the nuances in interpersonal relationships. Both novels involve sort of self-involved, superficial characters. Some of it seems intentional, but other parts less so.

Her characters aren’t meant to be particularly sympathetic (she has stated before that she writes “about fake people”), which is fine, but the character are so completely lost in their own self-absorption that it doesn’t feel self-aware. I don’t mean on behalf of the characters, I mean that I don’t get the feeling that Rooney entirely understands how self-centered, self-pitying and immature her characters are. There’s little sense of any world greater than someone’s own feelings, liking fancy houses or upscale parties and enjoying the pretentions of lolling about in literary circles and talking about abstract concerns.

Conversations with Friends dabbles with some philosophical thoughts, moreso than Normal People, but it also suffers from less believable interactions between the characters. All the characters are aggressively detached, like they’re in some type of competition to be the least emotional person in any given room. When an affair is revealed to the spouse of one of the characters, the spouse writes a calm, rational e-mail to the other woman, and they all continue to hang out as before. It all feels so desperate to be so achingly modern.

It also drove me nuts how the main character handles everything in the most self-pitying way possible. For example, when Frances clearly has a serious medical issue, she refuses to get proper help from those around her or to proactively seek out medical attention. Instead, she just holds it in, wallowing in self-pity, fainting in public, letting others break the news to each other, etc. I think this is supposed to be some characterization of her being guarded, which is fine, but it’s written in a way that makes it seem like I’m supposed to feel sorry for her. I don’t know if Rooney even realizes how petulant and overdramatic it all is for a character to allow themselves to be a martyr to their own victimhood.

Additionally, I felt a little uncomfortable with how female leads in Rooney’s books both have abusive fathers. It seemed like it’s used more as a sob story to turn the characters into victims and some type of plot device than something that’s explored on a meaningful level. I found this fairly off-putting, like abuse was being used to “round out” and create sympathy for largely over-privileged characters. I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts on this though, since I can imagine other people feeling differently about this aspect of her books.

Also, as with Normal People, I was again reminded of how Rooney is out of touch with what it means to be poor. She describes Frances, the protagonist, as a “moderately poor person”. But Frances is someone who is attending university, who lives rent-free in an apartment her uncle owns and whose parents can afford to give her allowance. She takes an unpaid internship and therefore chooses not to work for extra money. Does Rooney think anyone who has to work for money is poor? I just feel like she is so out of touch with what exactly it means to be a poor person.

Read it or Skip it?

I liked this book more than I liked Normal People, but I pretty strongly disliked Normal People so that’s not saying much. I found much of it trivial, self-pitying and pretentious. Still, many of Rooney’s depictions of the thought processes of Frances are surprisingly relatable, encompassing thoughts that are often not said aloud, and her urban, intellectual romances are likely to appeal to urban twenty-something readers.

It’s also a good book to read with a friend if you like talking about and debating relationship-type stuff. Did he really love her? Was she being sincere? Do you think X couple will work out? etc. etc.

To me, Rooney’s books mostly consist of obsessing and overanalyzing toxic relationships, written with an air of irritatingly detached coolness and superficiality. I remember having this phase as a fresh-out-of-college kid living in Manhattan, attending loft parties and visiting wine bars. I suspect her books turn me off so much precisely because I can point to the time in my life when this book would have seemed profound, but now it just seems so flawed. It’s trying so hard to be cool and unaffected that I can’t take it seriously.

I’ll admit that there’s something entertaining about these books if you like angsty, modern romance, but as far as literature goes, there’s so many better, more important and more meaningful books out there that I wish people would choose over her books. Still, if you’re into it, knock yourself out.

If you disagree with me, feel free to tell me why you think I’m wrong in the comments! I’m always happy to consider any (civil) responses. See Conversations with Friends on Amazon.

Conversations with Friends Audiobook Review

The narrator is good, it’s a solid audiobook. Runs 8 hours and 20 minutes. Listen to a clip here.

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of Conversations with Friends

Movie / TV Show Adaptation

See Everything We Know About the 'Conversations with Friends' Adaptation

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