When I finished reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, I thought that is the saddest novel ever. When I re-read it some years later, I felt the same. Now Sally Rooney has updated my list: Conversations with Friends is up there with Tess, the saddest tale - though not ‘told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Rooney’s tale signifies that her protagonist Frances is not an idiot – but she is a woman without a ‘map’, wandering in a fog of relationships and meanings.
Frances and ex-partner-now-best-friend Bobbi are students and performance poets. Early on, we learn that Frances sits in bed, writing work to perform at gigs alongside Bobbi, and it’s at a gig that the tragedy begins to play out.
Here we are, back at Trinity College Dublin, and indeed Rooney even introduces us to a cameo of one of the two main characters of her second book Normal People, set partly at Trinity College, about two thirds through the story. Their ‘friend Marianne’. Though is this same Marianne as enters into the tortuous relationship with Connell in that book, or not? Frances also refers a couple of times to the concept of ‘normal people’ and we feel she isn't sure whether or not she qualifies as one. So, the author’s first book looks towards her second.
This story of ex-teen angst comes close to Normal People in questioning the impossibility of true friendship and honest relationships, whether with friends or lovers. What indeed are ‘friends’? When Frances and Bobbi take up with an older couple, also involved in the Dublin arts scene, they probably don’t realise they’re stepping into deep water. The needs and the experience of this couple, Melissa and Nick, will take over their lives, and further educate them in the ways of the world. Frances and Bobbi have already been lovers, and possibly regarded themselves as experienced and moving towards sophistication, but their friendship with these two draws them into complications and mind games.
Here we have a couple not unlike Marianne and Connell from Normal People. Frances mirrors or foreshadows Marianne, for although her family is not well off, and is indeed ‘almost working class,’ they are dysfunctional, cold, and lacking a father. Frances’s father, (although not mysteriously no longer alive, like Marianne’s), is absent as he is a hopeless alcoholic and has moved out to live alone in squalor. Her mother isn’t exactly cruel like Marianne's, but she is distant and has little to offer as positive emotional support. Frances stands apart from them, coping alone with her feelings, all too ready to fall for anyone who appears to offer love and positive regard. We see this earlier on when we’re told Frances had responded to Bobbi's question at school ‘do you like girls?’ by eagerly and presumably without question entering into a lesbian relationship. Later, in this book she is drawn towards a man. Of course this could indicate that Frances is bisexual, or that in today's world our orientation is fluid, but I wonder whether for Frances it is not orientation which matters but whether a person invites her into intimate relationship? Bobbi is the wealthy one, but her divorced parents fight and are equally unsupportive towards their daughter. She is physically attractive, while Frances regards herself, as does Marianne, as plain or even ugly. Frances and Bobbi are in effect family to one another, answering each other’s needs for affirmation even after ‘breaking up’ as a couple. A situation in which any circumstances which cause suspicion or jealousy will inevitably tear them apart both within themselves and from each other.
My impression is that although this may simply be a story of two young women negotiating the process of growing up, leaving family background behind, and making choices as they join the adults, alongside the academic process of gaining a degree, it goes deeper. By accident or by design, Rooney clearly illustrates the lost without-a-map experience of today’s post-modern society. Where anything goes, maybe nothing goes or grows. I am reminded of the work of Edna O'Brien (e.g. The Country Girls, 1960, a trilogy which also features a pair of young women, school friends anxious to break with restrictions and live their own lives) by the desperate, uninformed, and clinging of Frances to Bobbi in the wilderness of a self-seeking adult world which will use her – or indeed either young woman - and then cast them aside. What has changed since 1960?
So how does this story relate to Hardy’s? In obvious plot-related ways not at all. However, as we encounter three incidents, any of which could tip Frances into depression and seeking solace, there are possibly points where she could resist the magnetism of a relationship which ultimately promises her nothing. A small possibility of ‘redemption’ occurs, but is quickly removed by an accident of circumstance, and we readers kind of know that Rooney, Frances herself, and society have already rejected that route. She ends up taking another, one which promises nothing long-term, but on this particular day seems to provide her with at least a fellow traveller for the present.
Like Tess, circumstances have led a young person with her life before her into a cold, dark and uncaring cul-de-sac, invited there by a physically attractive but emotionally weak male. How long will this continue? And will this possible fate haunt girl children for ever?