By Alison Buckholtz
In films and video games, hidden messages—an inside joke, a reference to a related subject, or a play on words or images meant to appeal to viewers with a shared history—are known as “Easter eggs.” Like a real Easter egg hunt, stumbling upon a treasure during interactive play keeps us engaged in the fun.
But literature was on to this long before gamers, because after all, what’s more interactive than reading? And what’s more satisfying to a reader than feeling like she’s in a real conversation with an author—appreciating hidden references and using them to decode what the author leaves unsaid? When that happens, it’s like a conversation with a friend.
And that’s exactly the feeling I got from Conversations with Friends, the new novel by 23-year-old Irishwoman Sally Rooney. It has more author-to-reader Easter eggs than a church picnic in April. Consider the exchange about literature between Frances, a university English major, and her older, married boyfriend Nick, who declares that “no one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.” Both Rooney and her characters are cutting ties, decisively, with their hoary literary and cultural forebears.
With no canon of certified Gaelic geniuses to defer to, and no replacement for the “sedative” of religion that’s also exited the Irish stage, Rooney’s free to unwrap for us the lives of today’s artistic young Dubliners, who are just as European as they are Irish. Their polished, cosmopolitan exteriors-in-progress give way as romantic tensions tighten, slack, and twist back into surprising new combinations.
Those combinations, as much as the conversations, energize this novel. When we meet Frances and her best friend Bobbi, it’s years after they were girlfriend and girlfriend in high school, an arrangement that alienated Frances from the rest of her peers but catapulted her into the closest, most meaningful relationship she ever had. When the book opens, Frances and Bobbi are performing spoken word poetry together at local clubs a few nights a week the summer before their final year at Trinity College, Dublin.
Melissa, a thirtysomething photographer with established bona fides in the art scene, asks to profile Frances and Bobbi for a magazine. As they get to know Melissa, the glimpse into her well-appointed life—handsome husband, fulfilling creative career, beautiful home, frequent trips to France—exposes an avenue that’s potentially ahead for them.
But Frances isn’t sure what she wants to pursue—or, more urgently, who she wants to pursue. Though she’s never been with a man before, she’s attracted to Melissa’s husband Nick, and the two start an affair whose genuine mutual affection and need surprises both of them. When Melissa and Bobbi find out, it doesn’t put an end to the affair; after the initial shock, the knowledge deepens those interactions as well.
Rooney handles these sexual and emotional relationships with a matter-of-factness that neutralizes any moral qualms and asserts Frances’ natural right to chase whatever relationship combination offers the feeling of security that eludes her–regardless of its complexity, temporariness, or essential impossibility. As she says, “If two people make each other happy then it’s working.”
That’s an endearing idea, and it certainly works in the pages of Conversations with Friends. Perhaps that’s because Frances’ most agonizing relationship isn’t with Nick, Bobbi, or Melissa; it’s the one she has with herself, and it overflows with self-loathing. The reader knows things about Frances that even her intimates don’t; in that way, we’re in on a separate conversation with her. As our quiet dialogue builds, our sympathy grows. So when Frances calls herself a cold, unfeeling person, scenes we’re privy to—like the moment she realizes her alcoholic father lied about paying her school fees, leaving her broke—expose why she had to wall off her emotions.
Like many people who repel those they need the most, Frances’ periods of emotional self-exile are more destructive than any romantic pairing she pursues. During the worst conflicts with Nick and Bobbi, when she is all alone and without the resources to recover, she begins harming herself.
She’s wholly without self-pity, though. Rooney never presents Frances as pathetic in her solitude, or triumphant in the professional success she finally begins to achieve once her writing is recognized and she starts to piece her life back together again. She’s simply and unapolegetically herself: a portrait of an artist as a young woman, doing what today’s young women do, in a Dublin that the old literary guard would scarcely recognize.
Rooney, Sally. Conversations with Friends. Hogarth, 2017.
Buy Conversations with Friends here.
About the Author:
Sally Rooney was born in the west of Ireland in 1991. She studied English at Trinity College, Dublin, and her writing has been featured in The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, and Granta.
About the Reviewer:
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin, April 2009; in paperback April 2013). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.