On Debut Novelist Sally Rooney’s 21st Century Adultery Novel for the Internet Age

Irish writer Sally Rooney's methodical, calculated, ultimately rewarding debut novel, Conversations With Friends, explores real love lost, found, and transformed.

Assessing the merits of a debut novel like Conversations With Friends is a tricky proposition. Parts ponderous, lumbering, and a little too audaciously high-minded, the story takes time to settle. Call it an adultery novel for the 21st century, and you will get close to a sense of how to perceive this quartet of emotional intellectuals.

Rooney is an assured, focused, very methodical writer here who seems to be working exclusively within familiar terrain. Frances and Bobbi were girlfriends for two years, no longer together romantically but still — at least as we read it (from Frances’s voice) — a connected duo. Now in their 20s, and like young people around the word (Frances and Bobbi are Dubliners), they are trying to find themselves and develop a unique presence as poetic spoken word performance artists.

Since Frances’s voice is the only one we follow, our allegiances might naturally lean towards her as she drifts from ex-girlfriend Bobbi and enters the lives of Melissa and Nick. This second couple enters the story early on and are pivotal in sparking the conversations, the dialogues, the major movements in these character’s lives. Melissa is an essayist/photographer from the wealthier part of Dublin, probably 15 years older than Frances and Bobbi. Melissa’s husband Nick is a handsome and well-known actor in his mid-30s and probably in the chiseled George Clooney mode.

Melissa wants to profile Frances and Bobbi for a prestigious magazine, but the end results of what that exposure might provide (respectability and legitimacy) are not the point of Conversations With Friends. Instead, the approximately seven months covered in the novel chart the course of how Frances enters into an adulterous relationship with an older man (Nick), and Bobbi bonds tightly with Melissa. Life lessons may or may not be learned by the end of the story, as little earthquakes are endured, but it’s the journey through them that’s the point to be understood.

The ponderous and at times lumbering nature of this story is really a matter of Rooney’s stylistic conventions, and it can take a while to accept. Rooney seems more inclined to tell, not show, her character’s traits. “I’m gay, said Bobbi, and Frances is a communist.” Melissa sees herself as “a neurotic individualist”, and Nick self-declares as a Marxist who wishes not to be judged for owning a house. Add to this style, which may turn off some readers, is the text’s absence of quotation marks, which can make it difficult to follow without paying absolute attention. This requires extra patience from the reader. Rooney rewards those willing to go the distance with this novel by inserting transcripts of text conversations that work as faux journalism and a great example of a 21st century epistolary literary tradition. These characters would be severely confined by the 142 character limitations of Twitter and the sentence fragment pronouncements of a typical Facebook post (that always seem to be missing a subject.) Here, Frances and her married lover Nick are considering their relationship:

Me: I can’t believe you’re breaking up with me over Instant Messenger… I thought you were going to leave your wife so we could run away together.

Nick: You don’t need to be defensive.

Me: How do you know what I need?

Later, as Frances contemplates the status of her relationship with Bobbi, which had been drifting away the more she prioritized connecting with Nick, she makes this observation:

“It comforted me to know that my friendship with Bobbi wasn’t confined to memory alone, and the textual evidence of her past fondness for me would survive her actual fondness if necessary.”

This is followed by a collection of Bobbi’s comments, time stamped and official, that can seem annoying and a little too academic if placed in a different context, but it’s in keeping with the audacity of a first-time novelist. Shoot for the stars. The hits may be rare as these attempts soar in the sky at a rapid pace, but their insistence will resonate:

“If you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon and try to understand it as a social phenomenon it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness… and yet it’s also subservient and facilitatory…”

It helps that later in the novel, Rooney adds this wonderful observation about how Frances feels when her friend Bobbi talks:

“Listening to Bobbi theorize in this way was exciting. She spoke in clear, brilliant sentences, like she was making shapes in the air out of glass or water.”

Again, on paper these character monologues can be ponderous, but Rooney makes it work. It’s not just that she is featuring characters her age that she probably knows, she also seems to sincerely like them. They are working through challenges that come when too many words are shuffling for positions of power, when actions are methodical and determined rather than spontaneous and combustible, when the world is best understood if accompanied by a written transcript of actions experienced and scenes witnessed. It can be a frustrating inconsistency with the story, an impediment to this novel’s success, that there aren’t many conventional conversations in this narrative. That may be the point, though, because after all, these characters are working within the context of a cerebral world. They’re actors, journalists, and performers.

While these replications of imagined instant messages and e-mails can be a predictable device for first-time novelists and an easy way to fill word quotas, in confident hands they can be very effective. Such is the case with the long email from Melissa to Frances after learning that the latter has been sleeping with Nick. It’s indicative of Rooney’s style, which can be annoying if not for the fact that the informed reader understands that there are people who think and talk and write like this to each other:

“Are you making my husband better, Frances? What gives you the right to do that? …For Nick, you’re probably indistinguishable from happiness. I don’t doubt that he considers you the great love of his adult life…”

A pivotal turning point in Conversations With Friends comes when Frances’s biggest literary exposure (and financial compensation) comes at the expense of her friendship with Bobbi. It causes an understandable rift, though the biggest issues for Frances are the consequences from her relationship with Nick. Rooney deals sensitively with some major issues here. Frances is a self-mutilator, depressed and desperate but also (and this comes across with humor that was probably intended) aware that this too shall pass and there would be more important considerations to be made about her life many years later:

“Ultimately it didn’t matter that Nick had taken the first opportunity to leave me as soon as Melissa wanted him again… or that my face and body were so ugly it made me sick… That wasn’t what my biographers would care about later.”

There’s a quick, almost breathless style to Conversations With Friends that can sometimes be an impediment to contextualizing where and how it stands as a novel, debut or not. Advanced press material has cited Rooney as noting that she wrote the bulk of this novel in three months, the characters apparently almost fully formed. There isn’t much action or motivation with the plot and characters until probably at least a third of the way through this book. In fact, there really isn’t much of a “plot” per se, just a quartet trying to control where their cerebral natures will take them.

What we have by the end of Conversations With Friends is a story of forgiveness and renewed faith. “The Bible made a lot more sense to me, almost perfect sense, if I pictured Bobbi as the Jesus character. She didn’t deliver his lines entirely straight; often she pronounced them sarcastically, or with a weird distant expression.” That’s what we have to take with Rooney’s heroine, and eventually she earns that personality quirk. What becomes rewarding is that Rooney’s sympathy towards her character is something that we might not share upon first read. She might not have mapped out every movement she wanted them to make, and there are times when want her to move on, but we are sympathetic. Through health problems and trying to handle her distant, alcoholic father, she never stops searching.

“Things and people moved around me, taking positions in obscure hierarchies, participating in systems I didn’t know about and never would. A complex network of objects and concepts. You live through certain things before you understand them.”

Passages like that, delivered not with brazen aplomb but rather humble enlightenment, makes the reader hope that perhaps this isn’t the last we’ll see of Frances as she navigates what will definitely be (as the older among us can surely cite) tougher times in the future.