Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
I saw a profile of Sally Rooney in the New Yorker, hailing her as (a) Irish and (b) “the first great millennial novelist”. Really?
“The Irish writer has been hailed as the first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism.” From  quoting 
Rooney is undoubtably Irish, though that doesn’t seem to be a particularly distinctive influence on her novel. OK, there were lots of unexplained references places and life in the Emerald Isle, but everybody seems to live pretty much the same as other places (except for all the rain).
She is also a “millennial” by age, and this shows up in the ubiquity of digital communications, among other things. Ten years after every young person started doing it, Rooney’s characters are emailing, phoning, and texting each other like mad. I certainly appreciate this, after countless novels that take no notice of how people really communicate these days.
So what do these Irish millennials do? Pretty much the same as everybody else, only with text messages.
Conversations appears to be based on Rooney’s own (young) life, so the characters reflect things she knows. Politics and student life. Young love. Millennial kids worried about their unpromising future.
Being “millennial”, Rooney is open to rather free-wheeling experiments in and against “identity”. (The sexual and generally leftist politics caught the fancy of the The New Yorker commentators as much as the adultery.) Also, inexplicably, everyone but the protagonist seems to be independently wealthy, and there is no explanation of how this could be.
The plot is a slice of the life of a young woman, from her point of view. Many of the crucial events are, frankly, pretty unbelievable (at least to a non-millenial, non-Irish, male). Worse, the main driving story involve unbelievably stupid behavior on the part of these supposedly really smart people.
This is as it always was, I suppose. Kids. Tsk.
But it’s very hard to read, at least for someone who’s been around the block a few times. I kept wanting to scream, “don’t do that, you idiot”, as the protagonist dives in to poor choices, and lets her true friends walk away mad, and so on.
The “millennial” part includes ubiquitous technologically enhanced communications. We see people emailing follow ups to conversations, texting in the middle of the night, phoning at a bad time, and so on. We also see the protagonist analyze and re-analyze messages, including a really-not-recommended download and exploration of the complete history of all the text messages she ever exchanged with her best friend. (Seriously, Do Not Do This At Home).
One of the interesting aspects of Rooney’s “conversations” is how, even with all this communication, people still don’t know things, still hide things, still misunderstand things. People are still people, blind and deaf, and sometimes so smart they are stupid. The network may connect people, but it doesn’t seem to solve the challenges of how to connect with people.
I have to say that I’m rather worried about Frances, the protagonist. She seems determined to not only make bad choices (in my book, deceiving people who love you is never a brilliant plan), but persist in these bad courses. I’m as romantic as the next guy, but really—get a grip, woman. This isn’t going to work out, and you know it. And there is a pretty obvious great thing that will work out if you let it, and you know it.
Is this a “great” novel? I don’t even know that that would mean. And who cares? It’s engaging, and often troubling. That sound good to me.
- Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends, New York, Hogarth, 2017.
- Lauren Collins, Post and Riposte: Sally Rooney’s novels of love and late capitalism, in Teh New Yorker. 2019, Conde Nast: New York. p. 24-29. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/07/sally-rooney-gets-in-your-head
- Alexandra Schwartz, TALK TO ME. New Yorker, 93 (22):74-76, 2017.
Sunday Book Reviews