I can’t argue with success. Or, maybe I can. Sally Rooney is apparently the new Irish Writer in Residence, following in the footsteps of Swift, Joyce, McCourt, Carr, Delaney, and a host of others. Why do I say this? Well, in addition to making the New York Times bestseller lists for both this book and her new novel, Normal People, this young phenom is on a roll in terms of winning awards for her writing, Conversations with Friends won the Guardian’s Best First Novel award in 2017 and, two years later, Normal People, shut out of the prestigious Booker Prize (one of the most coveted awards for fiction writers), became the youngest winner of the coveted Costa Award. In fact, I picked up this novel, essentially chick lit with a 21st century minimalist vibe, after reading an excellent essay by Rooney on my go-to literature website, Lit Hub. So is this young Dubliner that good? It depends.
Conversations with Friends is a dialogue-driven examination of the relationship between Frances, the narrator, a twenty-one year old poet/student; her former girlfriend, Bobbi (essentially the same age as Frances); Nick, film star husband of photographer Melissa; and Melissa. A casual encounter between the four, long after the breakup of Frances and Bobbi, leads to Nick and Frances falling into a relationship. As they say, it’s complicated since all four have admiration, if not respect, for each other. There’s certainly some fine writing in and amongst the awkwardness of the tryst between the thirty-something Nick and the college-aged Frances. Here’s a sample of Rooney’s style, prose somewhere between Salinger and Fifty Shades of Gray. The scene occurs before Frances, experiencing abdominal pain beyond her normal menstrual cramping, suspicious that she might be pregnant by Nick, learns she may in fact be infertile:
When I looked up I saw Nick was watching me. We looked at one another for a few seconds and it felt so serious that I tried to smile at him. Yeah, I said. I love this baby. This is a great infant, ten out of ten. Jim replied: oh, Rachel is Nick’s favorite member of the family. He likes her more than we do. Nick smiled at that, and he reached over and touched the baby’s hand…She held onto the joint of Nick’s thumb then. Oh, I’m going to weep, I said. She’s perfect.
See what I mean? Nicely constructed once you get through the oddity of not separating dialogue with quotations. That threw me a bit but, like reading Ulysses and Joyce’s bizarre aversion to punctuation, I got over my pique. That’s not my complaint. Here is my beef: I read the book and never once, throughout the experience, got the sense I was in Ireland or Dublin or anywhere other than New York City or LA. I get that Rooney isn’t writing literary or historical fiction here, chock full of descriptions of character or place. But the settings are so defuse and oblique, it was like walking through a forest without a compass. I never really knew where the hell I was.
So how to gauge this story and the artistry behind it? I get that Rooney is trying to do something fundamentally divergent from what I do when I craft a story. She’s marching to her own drummer, finding her own path, chronically a new generation in a new century. And apparently others find that refreshing, daring, and intelligent. I’ll admit I was titillated by possibilities of these four sensual characters falling into bed singly or in pairs or whatever. But the four main actors in this play all seem so disconnected from love and truth and real life, in the end, I felt cheated. Maybe I’m wrong. You decide.
3 stars out of 5. But maybe I just don’t get it.