I devoured this book – but did I actually like it?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a historical fiction nut – anything set more recently than seventy years ago just doesn’t hold as much of an attraction for me. So it may come as a surprise that I’ve actually read a book that was written, published and set in the current decade. This constitutes a radical departure from my normal reading material but it was gifted to me during the summer and, after stalling on another book, I decided to give it a go.

It’s called Conversations With Friends by Irish author Sally Rooney and it makes for great book review content because I have so many mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I found myself racing through it at a speed quite unlike my usual relaxed tempo. On the other hand, I kept asking myself throughout whether I truly liked what I was reading. Even now, I’m still not sure! But here’s my attempt to arrange my chaotic thoughts into a semblance of organised analysis.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Plot: It’s about Frances and Bobbi, two young college students who are ex-girlfriends, and Nick and Melissa, an actor and journalist who are a married couple in their thirties. The book follows the complicated relationships between these four characters, focusing primarily on Frances’s developing affair with Nick.

Style: One thing that bugged me about the author’s style was that she didn’t include quotation marks. The dialogue often ran on directly from the narrative and simply ended with a ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ to indicate that there had been spoken words. This left me feeling like I was never really in any scene, just observing it from a distance through the eyes of Frances, the narrator. However, in contrast to this, the author also tended to include insignificant details in the description of physical surroundings which I liked because it helped to draw me back in from that distant viewpoint.

Characters: This was the real sticking point, to be honest – I had no affection for the four main characters and actively disliked some of them. Frances’s inner thoughts (profound reflections on her vulnerability) and outward dialogue (sarcastic and cutting comments) were so opposite to each other that it hardly seemed believable that they belonged to the same person. Her friend Bobbi was supposedly an attractive and confident young woman but I found her self-centred, opinionated and arrogant and couldn’t understand why Frances was so captivated by her. Melissa came across as cold and disparaging, especially towards her husband. And Nick, the love interest, was so weak and impassive that I found it hard to credit the plausibility of his often emotionless affair with Frances. This meant that I went through the entire book without rooting for anyone in particular, which I think added to the sense of distance.

Genre: Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in the past, but reading a book set in modern-day Dublin didn’t sit comfortably with me. I can pinpoint this mainly to the characters’ extremely casual attitudes towards sex and love. Sometimes it seemed like getting into bed with someone carried no more weight to it than shopping for groceries. I kept wondering, do people really behave like that, in the city I lived in for years? I think with historical fiction I have a sense of escaping to another world, and am therefore more likely to accept the unusual or controversial events that happen there – but when it comes to contemporary fiction, I find myself holding it to a stricter standard of reality. Of course, I should remember that fiction is the operative word. Still, do people really behave like that…??

I feel like this review has become very critical but I don’t want it to swing too far in a negative direction, because the truth is I found it hard to put the book down. Despite the detracting factors above, I was compelled to keep going with a constant mantra of ‘just one more page’. I was morbidly fascinated by the questionable behaviour of the various characters and very keen to see how it would all turn out. While I felt the end was somewhat dissatisfying, I do believe it fit with the tone of the book.

Hats off to Sally Rooney who (at only 26) has accomplished an impressive feat, that of creating a book which is riveting, thought-provoking and worthy of much discussion. I can’t say for certain that I liked it but I definitely savoured it as a valuable reading experience.

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