30) Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
If you read any reviews of literary fiction or any coverage of prizes in the past couple of years, or even if you just look askance at your average Waterstones book pile, you will have read the name Sally Rooney a hundred times or more. For this debut and the follow up, Normal People, she has become feted – and if I’m honest, that’s partly what put me off for a while: the sheer hype(rbole) making it quite difficult to approach.
So I’ve waited a bit and then given this a go. I liked it: much of what people say is true, in that she has a great gift for dialogue (whether spoken or via instant messenger), draws both minor and major characters effortlessly well, and has real insight into the inner lives of those characters, particularly the younger ones. There are also plenty of enjoyable instances of wry and dry humour, although the laughter is always underwritten with sadness.
The lead character Frances feels eminently believable and I’m almost certain I knew her and Bobbi at university, particularly during my Practice of Poetry module – like us, they constantly teeter on the brink of students pretentiousness, whilst occasionally striking real notes of profundity. Nick & Melissa I accepted less instantly, but the interplay between the four of them became more intriguing as the pages turned – with a feeling of doomed inevitability hanging over it all.
What I struggled with more was the structure and pacing of the story – at first, it rattled along with the same breathless excitement of Frances & Bobbi as they make new friends; but the pace slowed in the section in France and then felt fragmented when they returned. This happened at the same time as Frances’ mental and physical health deteriorates, and I was unconvinced by that deterioration – they seemed more like plot devices for Rooney to use, rather than adding any insight or depth to character or narrative.
I may be being unduly harsh (the downside of all that hype, and the whole literary world saying how amazing you are on the front and back covers), but it felt like if I hadn’t read anything about it beforehand, I would have said: “here’s a writer with real talent, and a real gift for pace, for character, for dialogue, but she hasn’t quite sustained it in this novel, so the last third is less satisfying than it could be.” Perhaps that’s why I should read the next one, which I’ve been told is better still.
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