I don’t know what it is about Sally Rooney, but she just gets it.
Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends (CwF), is set in Ireland and follows Frances, a 21-year-old college student, as she embarks on an affair with Nick, an actor in his 30s. Similar to Rooney’s Normal People (her better known novel about two teenagers’ mutual attraction that has since been adapted to a highly acclaimed BBC TV series), the plot of CwF is simple: Frances is a girl navigating her inexplicable attraction to a married man. As the story unfolds, sub-plots involve explorations of Frances’ relationships with her family, her charismatic and sharp ex-girlfriend, and Nick’s wife.
I can’t put my finger on what made this book stand out to me. At first, I was compelled to read because I had heard great things from a friend; at some point though, I became invested in Frances’ character development and Rooney’s style of storytelling.
Rooney has a way of choosing words carefully to evoke feelings, and while none of the characters in the book are likeable, certain moments felt relatable and raw. Rooney is brilliant at conveying emotions of hurt, jealousy and despair: as Frances realises that she is not as in control of her feelings as she initially believes, we see her lash out, and grow.
Still, even though this story left a big positive impression on me for its emotional impact… something about Rooney and her writing throws me off. In private conversations, I’ve used the words “loaded nothingness” to describe Rooney’s style of writing. Quite frankly… Rooney’s style of storytelling feels like a grown-up version of YA author John Green’s. Throughout the novel, we live inside Frances’ head and watch her train of thoughts unspool, and Frances and her acquaintances discuss everything from communism to the meaning of love. Her characters are simultaneously self-obsessed and self-possessed, yet aloof: so above their circumstances that they are capable of detaching themselves to make social commentary even while living moment-to-moment.
Separately, as a woman, I found Rooney’s portrayal of troubled college girls icky. In both Normal People and CwF, Rooney’s protagonists are waif-like young women, who have no life goals, barely eat, severely lack self-esteem, commit self-harm, and seek approval from men. For all that these women are viewed as independent, they are highly co-dependent, and exist as manic pixie dream-girls, to help others fulfil their lives. Despite being the central protagonist of the story, and a working-class struggling student, Frances has no career plans, and frequently has bland thoughts admitting she doesn’t care at all about her future. Frances herself is uninteresting, and her existence is almost solely centred around Nick.
I think I find Rooney’s depiction of women distasteful because for all their perceived independence and strong-will, they orbit around weak love interests, and set-backs lead them to spiral into acts of self-harm and self-criticism. I probably also find it icky because there is some truth to this narrative: people aren’t inherently interesting, strong women have a weak side, and self-harm and low self-esteem is prevalent among young women.
But still. Yuck.
For me, this is the rare book that borders the line between love-and-hate. I simultaneously want to re-read it, while throwing it across the room.
Make of that what you will.