Sally Rooney Has Written an Alarming, Yet Stunning Millennial Classic
Frances is a typical 21-year-old millennial: She prefers e-mails and online chats to real human interactions because the former allow her to leave things unanswered.
She has commitment issues and struggles with her personal identity. Everything she believes and thinks about herself comes from comparisons with other people, especially her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi.
Bobbi is more beautiful, more self-confident, more popular. Accordingly, Frances sees herself as unattractive, awkward, and puts herself into social isolation.
Frances is an unreliable narrator of the old school, even though the author Sally Rooney is a modern writer. Rooney was born in 1991 and is considered one of the most important contemporary writers of millennial literature.
Conversations With Friends is her debut novel, which she wrote during her Master’s degree at Trinity College Dublin. Her second novel, Normal People, won the Costa Book Award in 2019.
In Conversations With Friends, Rooney shows the millennial lifestyle in a realistic and poignant way:
At the beginning of the novel, Frances and Bobbi meet a married couple in their thirties. Melissa and Nick are both low-key famous, their relationship seems more like a partnership of convenience.
Their grown-up seductiveness affects both Frances and Bobbi. Frances starts an affair with Nick, while Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa. This array of dysfunctional relationships seems typical of the millennial lifestyle.
“You can love more than one person.”
Frances struggles with her role as the “other” woman — not because of her morals, but because it makes her feel powerless — and acts indifferent towards Nick, who is an incredibly passive character with no agency of his own.
Nick’s wife Melissa is the femme fatale of the story. She has power over everybody else: Nick cannot bring himself to leave her. Frances is jealous of her nice bourgeois life. Bobbi is enchanted by her and fails to see her flaws.
Melissa and Nick get in between of the valuable friendship Frances has with her only friend Bobbi. As the two former lovers drift apart, Frances sinks deeper and deeper into the social isolation cave she dug for herself.
Frances embodies a disillusioned generation. She is losing touch with her own body and with the world around her. She seems incapable of feeling any real joy. She sometimes even hurts herself, desperately trying to feel something — anything.
“Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life, basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.”
It is up to the reader to determine whether Sally Rooney is disillusioned herself or whether she is criticising the sophisticated social milieu she is part of herself.
Or maybe it’s both?
No matter how the reader decides to interpret Frances’ disillusionment — the effect of reading Conversations With Friends is sobering at the least, if not depressing.
The outlook of Frances’ story is rather hopeless. We watch her repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Sally Rooney’s slightly dry and direct writing style emphasise this sobering feeling.
This is the very quality that makes this novel so excellent: The writing, the characters, and the plot all fit each other perfectly, which makes for a painful, yet stunning portrait of the millennial generation.
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