Frances and Bobbi are a couple of students, former lovers, and best friends. They are still a duo, performing Frances’ poems in clubs and tackling school and the world together. They meet Melissa and Nick, a successful, older, married couple who perhaps dazzle them a bit with their success. Melissa is a photographer and writer published in magazines and Nick is a semi-famous actor. While Bobbi is drawn to Melissa, Nick attracts Frances and they have an affair.
The affair continues for some time, even during a visit to Melissa and Nick’s vacation home in France. It’s all very ironic and distant. Frances is not an “emotive” person, she claims. Nick is passive and accepting of whatever he gets. No one is very honest with each other except, perhaps, Melissa who sends Frances an e-mail when she learns of the affair. Perhaps that e-mail is honest, but I suspect not. Frances thinks it is artful and dishonest and she’s expert at reading between the lines.
Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends might have “conversations” in the title, but the people in this novel are not very good at talking to each other. They speak beautifully, but it’s all performance, which perhaps is the reason for the title. I don’t think I would like to know any of these people. They’re the type who will go out of their way to make other people uncomfortable. Bobbi in particular, but Frances, too, delight in making people feel lesser.
I am a little ambivalent about this book. I found the conversations interesting. The people were less interesting than they think they are. They all seem to see human interaction as some performative role of detachment, clever irony, and hipster alienation .God forbid someone love someone. Bobbi in a moment of fatuous theory expounds on how love is a mechanism to leverage labor in the capitalist market. What reductive prattle that was. As though there was no love before Adam Smith or even before agrarian society. I am sure the hunter-gatherers whose labor was solely their own also loved their partners and children. It was silly and beneath her.
Worse, these are people who accept less of life because they refuse to ask for what they want. Frances imagines herself so intellectual, so far from emotive, she cannot admit to loving Nick or Bobbi…so she harms herself. She can’t tell people she’s sick. She can’t tell Bobbi she wrote a story about her. It’s as though if she admitted her feelings, she would lost her intellect. Bobbi is annoyingly performative. Nick is passive and Melissa is passive-aggressive. They are unreliable people who perform friendship while masking their emotions under an air of sophisticated separation.
Yet, the story was interesting. I wanted to know if Frances was ever going to say anything worthwhile that was not written in a story. Bobbi said she learned more about how Frances felt in a few minutes reading a story she wrote than in four years of knowing her. I wanted to know if Frances and Nick could be honest with themselves, with each other, and with the other people in their lives.
One thing I like a lot about Conversations with Friends is that it deals with sexual orientation in a matter of fact way. This isn’t a story about the lesbian Frances discovering she is bisexual. The focus is never Frances’ orientation, but her detachment, her hiding behind intellect to mask her need for intimacy. Most of the time, when a gay character’s sexual orientation is part of the story it becomes the story. That did not happen. It’s so nice to let a gay character just be.
There’s a curious conventionality to Conversations with Friends that surprises me. The characters are so sophisticated and erudite. The dilemma is such an intellectual one, yet there is this subtext that perhaps France and Nick deserve to be unhappy because she’s having an affair with a married man. They pretend to be above such conventional mores. They all join in that pretense, but it doesn’t feel as though they really believe it. Still, I found myself wanting France to just tell Nick she wants him to leave Melissa and marry her. I want Nick and Frances to have the babies they really want…though they would never allow themselves to say it that openly. So, I guess I came to care for them after all, no matter how frustrating their lack of honest conversation made me.
This will be a great book club book. It’s offers a lot to talk about and debate and I think opinions will be all over the place. It’s not for prudes, but the sex is direct and non-euphemistic so no one has to be embarrassed by ridiculous euphemisms.
Conversations with Friends will be released July 11th. I received an ARC from the publisher through LibraryThing.