Sunday 22 October 2017

Sally Rooney's debut 'Conversations with Friends' is a love saga for the modern age

Fiction: Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber, €14.99

Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends was the subject of a major publisher bidding war. Photo: David Conachy
Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends was the subject of a major publisher bidding war. Photo: David Conachy

Hilary A White

Most writers use themselves as foundations for their characters - how could they not - the only difference being the thickness of the veil hanging in between.

When I recently interviewed Sally Rooney, even she had to laugh at the glaring similarities that one could draw between the much-touted Castlebar author and the lead protagonist in her debut novel, Conversations With Friends.

Frances, for example, is in her early twenties (just as Rooney was when she completed a first draft of Conversations...) and studies English in Trinity (as Rooney did, a master's in American literature to be precise). Frances must also travel to Co Mayo in order to visit her parents, in much the same way Rooney presumably does. However, these and some hardened political leanings are perhaps where the likeness ends because Frances is rather callow when it comes to the ways of the world. Rooney, who has only recently turned 26, is anything but.

Beginning life as a short story that quickly outgrew that restricted format, Conversations With Friends was the subject of a seven-way publisher bidding war and it's not hard to see why. Light on narrative frills and adornments but precision engineered with wisdom and surgically-sharp human observation, it tells of a quartet of characters so bold and vivid in their rendering that they quickly begin to sing.

Regardless of where you are from, you will have met them. Frances, our narrator, is the 21-year-old student, full of muddled passion, socialist rhetoric and mopey insecurity. Bobbi, her best friend and former lover, is forthright, opinionated and unhinged in a way that makes her fun and unpredictable but also combustible and inconsiderate.

Rooney lashes the two girls to a rock in choppy seas with a childless, mid-thirties, petit bourgeois couple. Melissa is a publishing professional and culture-bore. Her husband, Nick, meanwhile, is the glum actor, not busy enough to keep his mind constantly occupied but getting enough work to prevent a healthy change in direction.

The younger pair meet Melissa and Nick after performing at a poetry night and are flattered by the interest the older couple take in them. They are invited to leafy, redbrick Monkstown for dinner parties and find themselves preoccupied with impressing the cultured Melissa and the more aloof Nick. While Bobbi forms a crush on the former, it is Frances's tryst with Nick that forms the backbone of the novel.

The heat caused between Frances and Nick is refreshingly stark and ungilded. It has self-germinated out of each party's drifting vacancy. Nick lives in a house big enough for a whole family and introduces Frances to posh-nosh breakfasts such as French toast and eggs with chorizo, but his added years have not endowed him with a sounder emotional footing. Frances, in turn, can't pin down her father's apathy to life or her own ill-defined bond with Bobbi. Without Rooney ever having to explicitly state it, these catalyse her obsession with the rakish married man.

This is a modern love story for the modern age, a time where, as Rooney sees it, we are working off an outdated vocabulary ill-equipped to make sense of contemporary relationships. The world has turned since man and woman married and reared new life together in an atmosphere of mutual support, if not all-out romance. We are at sea, Rooney argues under the mantle of a middle-class saga that is nuanced, colour-rich and driven by the vigour of its characters.

Despite the setting, the tale will speak to readers of any hue, so universal are its thematic melodies. It is far more than just beach-read fodder, and may well go on to gain an identity as both the jumping-off point of a gutsy new talent as well as a love story that is perfectly emblematic of its time.

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