contemporary fiction

Conversations with Friends

by Sally Rooney

Mari HowardSeptember 1, 2020

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?

Normal People

by Sally Rooney

Mari HowardJuly 20, 2020

I watched the television adaptation of Normal People before I read the book. If this mistake was shared by a large audience then many, like me, could’ve initially understood the main point of this story as mainly significant looks and glances, and episodes of “having sex”. Most indoor scenes were filmed in half darkness, the audience left staring into deep gloom. A shame, as they’ll have missed a lot. When Lockdown intervened, I decided it was time to read the original and find out why Normal People had excited such interest. And was further encouraged by hearing someone unexpectedly praise the novel as ‘enjoyable’, saying how it had given him insights into how today’s young people think. And he is probably at least over 70, grew up reading Dickens from a young age, and has read widely ever since, including those long complex Russian novels more than once.

Anyone who reads the story will discover the subtleties which Sally Rooney has addressed in what’s been hailed (by some) as a definitive novel for the Millennial generation. I found this, Rooney’s second novel, reflects a keen observation of events taking place within a student class or a friendship group, as they grow from young teens to 20-somethings, making decisions about who they are, who they want to be, and how this is to be achieved. The insights, (or memories, she was still under 30 when she wrote it) are acute, and having recently watched a production of Romeo and Juliet confirmed my feeling that as children stumble towards adulthood much of what goes on is tragi-comic, if in a smaller way than in Normal People or in Shakespeare’s play. And it’s somehow necessary – or ‘built into our DNA’.

I enjoyed the book much more than the TV adaptation: and not only because I could ‘see’ the action in my mind rather than staring into a dim dark screen. There is much to commend in this writer’s depiction of the life we live today, and the strange often troubled journey from adolescence to young adult. About how ‘difference’ is perceived from the inside and from the outside. Not only about class, though that is important as well, especially in a small community. The halting prose, at times reminiscent of a diary of the detached observations of a group to which the observer is an unattached alien, can appear banal and slow. But no: by tracing small moves (such as when describing the dinner at Marianne’s family house in Italy) we are taken into the mood of the characters themselves.  Dreamy, increasingly hung over, until the scene erupts with a quarrel off-stage, a spat between Marianne and her then-boyfriend which leads to progress in the on-going awkward relationship between herself and Connell, our two main characters, and various ‘friends’ who surround them. Young people are making decisions about who they are, who they want to be, and how this is to be achieved. Some are more trapped than others, but all are partially trapped by the families where they began.

I wonder, however, why Rooney never details why Marianne’s mother and brother behave so cruelly and indifferently towards her? All we are told is “My father used to beat my mother. Sometimes he beat me.” So, there was domestic abuse in her family—as “punishment” or possibly simply as control?  But why the specific and extreme rejection of Marianne?

Having misheard when watching on TV as Marianne tells Connell this, I thought that she said “My father raped my mother”. And concluded that if this was so, was Marianne the “product” of marital rape? This could result in her mother “hating” the baby she was “forced” to keep. The story could even be referencing the Irish law on abortion, only recently liberalised. Even to the ‘tyranny’ of the Catholic church in Ireland, which opposed both Marianne’s mother fleeing her abusive marriage and her aborting this foetus conceived in violence. But we don’t know this — it’s only my guess, making sense of what is unexplained. Her brother, again, may’ve “hated” or rather resented the baby, either seeing her as the evil product of a brutal father, or as the author of his mother’s cold distant behaviour and incapacity even to mother him. He might feel superior towards this unwanted sister, forced on the family. All this is possibly only in the fellow novelist’s mind, filling in the blanks; Rooney may have had no intent or interest in these aspects, only wanting to give her female protagonist reason for self-hatred.  I had misheard “used to beat” as “used to rape” – a more shocking statement, but a reasonable cause of this otherwise strange behaviour.

Alternatively, their father’s decease, also unexplained, had been “caused” by Marianne? Again the hatred comes from the outcome of some accident or rescue which left the family with Marianne but no father. For whatever reason, Marianne the rejected child has no early backstory, so this remains the basis of curiosity for the reader and of a certain dissatisfaction with the plot as a whole.

Reading reviews of the book, I came across several readers who’d found the ending unsatisfying or worse. Only a few months after our protagonists finally settle as a couple, they reach a situation which looks like it will break them apart, due to career prospects. This indeed reflects our society, where following diverse career interests has become a reason to part. Ironically, as Marianne perceives she is now both lovable and loved, she begins to realise that she can indeed now live without Connell and survive. Their long on-off relationship, his always having “been there for her” has resulted, along with other incidents along the way, in this change of self perception. It’s almost chilling how she now appears to be preparing to show him that she has a power of her own, the power of rejection. And it seems like she’s going to use this to proving a point to herself.

Does she share the cruel streak, the ‘hard heart’ of other members of her family? 

Is Rooney saying that Marianne is realising that she no longer needs actual Connell, the specific person? Or that she no longer needs a partner from the “lower class”, but will find happiness and satisfaction alone, or from those who are her financial as well as intellectual equals? Are we to understand that she has “used” him in order to become a “normal person”? 

Or is this that run of the mill, end of Uni something, which happens as thousands of young people as they graduate and move on into the four corners of the earth? Many years ago, young adults  often stuck with and married the person they had been with through college, but now they want more.  To experience more places, relationships, events.  And has Connell also “used” Marianne to normalise himself?  So does the writer describe a “new normal” — how as we grow into adults we acquire the desired and precious “autonomy” of what has been called the “Me culture”?

These are ideas which I’ve not seen discussed in the reviews. What do you, the present reader, think? The elderly, thoughtful and well-read reader I mentioned earlier (a Dominican friar, actually, with a wealth of experience in many parts of the world) both enjoyed and appreciated what he’d learned about today’s young people. Has Rooney given us a definitive picture?

NOTES: 1. Illustration

NOTE: 1. Cover photo. screenshot from Waterstones website.

2. I’ve given Amazon prices, not because I advise you buy from them but because all the suppliers give varying prices/savings… as it was Lockdown, I bought the Kindle version though usually I avoid Kindle & buy from ‘bricks & mortar’ or the Guardian bookstore.