Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s bracing, miraculous debut, starts out typically enough, laboring in that old vineyard of novelists—infidelity. Set in Dublin, the narrator Frances is a 21-year-old poet invited to the home of a magazine writer, Melissa. Melissa’s husband is the handsome Nick, “a failed actor whose marriage is dead,” and who at times seems “embarrassed to be alive;” in other words, a man ripe for an affair.
Things build precipitously. Rooney has a gift for pacing, and the illicit builds with each chapter: The glances that last a few moments too long. The intrusive thoughts. The texts ignored; the texts whose importance is denied; the texts pondered over; the texts eventually responded to. The engineered encounters. The specially directed compliments. The chest-tightening jealousy. The waves of despair borne in secret. The denial to friends, and to oneself, that it is anything serious. The struggle to bury a revealing look, as to not be found out. “Our eyes seemed to have a conversation of their own.”
Frances, self-described as plain, analytical, and cold, advances through the early stages of the affair as she does through the entire book, with minimal introspection. As she wades into uncharted waters, she is often at the mercy of feelings she can neither name nor reign in. After seeing Nick perform, she finds herself licking her lips, playing with her hair, feeling “pure and tiny like a newborn baby.” She makes subtle rationalizations—Nick and Melissa don’t even sleep together; Melissa’s had affairs in the past; Melissa, therefore, is beyond her universe of moral consideration. Frances’s torpedo-like trajectory toward Nick’s marriage fills her not with pause, but with morbid curiosity. Soon she and Nick are in bed together, Frances asking, “Will you die if you can’t have me?” Reading this story in Rooney’s swift voice is like watching a young deer slide down an icy hill toward a highway.
I didn’t just read the book in a single day. I read it in a single day on two separate occasions, three days apart. Rooney reportedly wrote the bulk of the book in just 3 months, and it shows in all the best ways. Conversations with Friends reads like a very well-written, lucid email from a close friend—the kind of email you save and never delete. Part of this frictionless feel is Rooney’s talent, but technique figures too. Here are three people talking at a party:
Laura said it was nice to meet me and I said: your baby is so gorgeous, wow. Nick laughed and said, isn’t she? She’s like a model baby. She could do ads for baby food. Laura asked me if I wanted to hold her and I looked at her and said, yes, can I?
Another technique is the hominess of Rooney’s metaphors. She never reaches far for them, and they are always spot on. Writing emails with Nick was thrilling “like a game of table tennis.” Sex for the first time makes the insides of her body feel like “hot oil.” “The sun bore down on my face like a drill.” Her naked body, “looked like something that had dropped off a spoon too quickly, before it had time to set.” In bed Nick “touched me cautiously like a deer touches things with its face.” When her eyes meet with Nick’s it feels “like a key turning hard inside me.”
Rooney was a champion college debater and she has written about having a “flow” when assembling arguments, the words arriving almost without conscious effort. The flow is evident in the novel, too; she seems to have zero literary anxiety. As Rooney writes, you do not feel, as with so many writers, that she is looking over her own shoulder, questioning her own word choice, critical of herself, happy with herself. There is no struggle. The light, contemporary style also has the benefit of blending seamlessly with texts and emails, which appear quoted at length in the book. I read the book entirely on my phone (both times), now and then toggling back and forth with my own email and texts, and this seemed appropriate.
The rapid, linger-on-little style is of a piece with the character of Frances, who often aims to stifle it. She finds it “embarrassing” to admit she has feelings for Nick. If the moment gets too dramatic, there’s a flippant quip, or an economic theory to put things on ice. After her first kiss with Nick, she waits to feel any sadness or regret. “Instead I just felt a lot of things I didn’t know how to identify.” Right before the climatic moment of the affair, “I told him I didn’t want to be a homewrecker or whatever.” Frances is a poet by profession—it’s too bad her poetry is never quoted here. One imagines crisp lines about icebergs, chrome, and cool glasses of water.
Confronted at one point about her affair by a friend, Frances observes, “I felt sorry for all of us, like we were all little children, pretending to be adults.” Pretending or not, the pain is real. This book is a dagger.