Love and Self-Loathing in Sally Rooney’s ‘Conversations With Friends’

When I picked up Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, I gobbled up the first chapter with eagerness. Much like Sally Rooney’s protagonists, Frances and Bobbi, I wanted to arch an eyebrow and proclaim that hers was a sordid story masked and inlaid with various bits of psychological profundity.

But it’s much more than that. You are gripped with an almost whodunnit-esque fervour of finding out what finally happens between Frances and Nick, a 30-something older, married actor who begins an affair with the much-younger Frances, a spoken-word poet and student.

Frances is at times coy and rigidly ironic to the point of actually saying things that are vitally contrary to her own personal feelings. She goes through a gamut of physical and mental breakdowns which are gut-wrenchingly familiar to anyone who has brushed up against mental illness and body dysmorphia. Rooney, in an oblique and subtle way, sheds some light on the ungainly way people who have pretensions thrust upon them deal with inner anguish and primal human needs.

Frances was outwardly sophisticated and ironic and legitimately believed she had to play a role and that the prize at the end of the road lay in how she conducted herself. She tags along with her intellectual BFF/lesbian lover Bobbi and feels the need to be flippant about things she’s supposed to consider grubby such as looking for jobs or getting published because, in a large measure, Bobbi would accept nothing less. Frances flip-flops between her two lovers and the pillars holding up the perceived version of herself and even though she does, eventually, come to terms with the fact that her inner world is vastly dissimilar to the personality she has chosen to drape on.

‘Conversation With Friends’, Sally Rooney, Hogarth (2017)

Another facet of Frances’ personality that was glossed over was the nature of her subservient love for Nick. He holds the reins of their relationship, chooses when to break up, decides when or if he would tell his wife about the affair and Frances, who doesn’t have much of an agency when it comes to her love life, contends herself with making icy comebacks and falls back upon the glorious defence of the delusional – she never explicitly asks Nick to come back to her. This tendency runs true to form even in Normal People (2018), where all the relationship choices are made by Connell and not Marianne, even though in both books, the men in these respective equations are submissive in their own right. In the tussle between two submissives, Rooney still chooses to paint the women with a deeper shade of passivity.

Normal People, apart from the book that generated massive sales and made Rooney a reckonable name in literary circles, the TV show made her a sensation. It filled a lull in the collective TV and OTT space at a time when everyone was hungry for distraction – it was a quarantine hit. A flash of light and nuance in an otherwise bleak world filled with face masks, terrifying statistics and ever-expanding waistlines. We all hunkered down in our beds or on couches hugging pillows and looking for an hour’s relief from worry – until the next hour, where we would crave another something to eat into our brooding time.

Normal People the TV show was packaged as ‘outre’ and art house whereas it was, in actual fact, a slightly nuanced commercial entertainment package wrapped up with beautiful bits of Irish home life. But it did do something else. It made us talk. We spoke about emotional abuse, the more insidious sort that damages the very idea of our existence. We ‘normalised’ exchanges about what it means to be emotionally scarred with our sisters, mothers, husbands, boyfriends and fathers. Yes, these things happen. No, they shouldn’t. Why do you feel the way you do about it? Do these images trigger you still? Are you REALLY okay?

I find it oddly appealing that Rooney never really gets down to describing sex in all its gory details, focussing rather on things that probably wouldn’t be seen as overtly sexual such as when talking about the first time Connell and Marianne have sex:

“He would think of her small wet mouth and suddenly run out of breath, and have to struggle to fill his lungs.”

The book is at odds with the TV series here because there are buckets of sex scenes shown throughout the 12-episode run. Even when taking us through the supposedly torrid affair between Nick and Frances in Conversations With Friends, sex barely comes up as more than a blip, the content fixating largely on the elusive nature of their relationship and, of course, the ‘conversations’ themselves.

Also read: The Difficulty of Modern Love

Most of her pivotal characters seem fuelled by a particularly virulent strain of self-loathing, as is emphasised by Frances’ disturbing habit of cutting herself and Connell’s more subtle version – writing about Marianne in his diary and then turning the page so he doesn’t have to look at what he’s put down on paper.

It’s also curious how both her books pay homage to the traditional happy ever after theme, with Frances ending up with Nick and Marianne and Connell finding their own anchors in each other. In fact, not only do they have satisfactory conclusions, but they also each come with several on-again, off-again characteristics. Her characters are forever, in equal parts, drawn together and torn asunder repeatedly until the books grind to a more upbeat end. This gives one fuel for thought. Are we, as writers, doomed to rewrite the same stories over and over again?

As one reads her books, one is filled with curiosity, dismay, bafflement and sometimes, a face-palm worthy level of derision, but one is never bored. And for that reason alone, Sally Rooney wins all the points she likes with me.

Mehar Luthra is a 28-year-old coffeeholic currently living in the always-rainy town of Galway, Ireland. Not nearly as anxious anymore. Survives on pancakes and will work for Nutella.

Featured image credit: Piyapong Saydaung/Pixabay