Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

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Reviewed by Lucy Unwin

That the Bechdel Test for movies even exists has to be one of the more depressing minor details of modern times. If you’ve never come across it, it’s a way of evaluating a film’s representation of women using these criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. High standards, indeed. And yet, more movies than you would think fail miserably.

But we all know Hollywood is crass, whereas the world of literature is so much more engaged, interesting, broad and inclusive. Literature breathes through inclusivity; rare would be the mainstream fiction novel that would fail the test, surely? So, why is it still surprising to see two beautiful, young, female characters intelligently, entertainingly and unforgivingly engaged with the world? Because Frances and Bobbi, Conversations With Friends eponymous heroines, spark off the page in an inspirational and startling way.

The two women are best friends, and exes, studying at university together in Dublin. Frances writes spoken work poetry and they perform it together. It’s after one of these performances they meet, then become friends with, an older couple – photographer and essayist Melissa and her actor husband Nick. Bobbi develops an infatuation with Melissa, and Frances with Nick. Then, pretty much, nothing happens. And it’s wonderful.

The story is told from Frances’ perspective. It’s full of her poetic observations, quiet and beautiful views on the world, somewhat hazy, like a bee casting “a comma of a shadow” on the wall; but it’s also grounded, modern and funny. For example, on foreign trips:

We always took the cheapest flights, early in the morning or late at night, and as a consequence we usually spent the first day of the trip feeling irritable and trying to find free WiFi.

It’s sharp and insightful, gentle and comforting, frank and charmingly open. Witty, wry and full of the tenderness, viciousness and pain of friendship. And, over a series of small anarchys, gradually breaks apart the idea of who it is OK to love, and in what way.

As the title suggests, there are conversations, over many dinners and coffees. This is a book you might like as a dinner party guest – topics are floated and discussed with intelligence and emotion, setting your mind off on a million thoughtful tangents from the story as you read. But, more often than not, it is Bobbi talking, and Frances listening. “Listening to Bobbi theorise in that way was exciting. She spoke in clear, brilliant sentences, like she was making shapes in the air out of glass or water.”

In fact, the story itself is not in the conversations, but, rather wonderfully, in the things that are not said. In truth, this book is written almost entirely between the lines, which is quite a feat. While the characters are intellectually ferocious and clear, they are emotionally naive and muddled. We discover Frances at the rate she starts to understand herself. As she observes:

Before that summer I’d had no idea I was the kind of person who would accept an invitation like this from a woman whose husband I’d repeatedly slept with. This information was morbidly interesting to me.

And, wonderfully, as we discover with her, we feel with her too. It’s immersive. This book feels intimate: with Dublin, with the author, with Frances. You may end up a little bit in love with Bobbi, a little bit in love with Nick, and perhaps feeling a little more paranoid and anxious about yourself than you did before. But it’s worth it.

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Lucy Unwin blogs about books at Those Precious Stolen Moments. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin

Lucy interviewed Sally Rooney at the Hay Festival for our BookBuzz section – read the interview here.

Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends (Faber & Faber, 2017.) 978-0571333127, 336pp., hardback.

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