By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #30 – Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney has just published a new novel! To celebrate this, let's take a look at her debut.

Do you remember what it was like to be twenty-one? I do. It was glorious. I loved being a student and I loved being able to do whatever I wanted. I had great friends, and I often wished this time would never end. But if I’m being really honest, I must admit that it wasn’t always as great as I tell myself it was. Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends is about how hard it can be to be young. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!

Frances, the narrator of Conversations With Friends, is cold and seemingly detached. She performs spoken word, is intelligent, is concerned with politics, economics and gender roles, and analyses everything before she acts. She experiences emotions just like everybody else, but refuses to share them with her friends. Somehow, she feels that her feelings are private, and talking about them with Bobbi, her best friend and former girlfriend, and her lover Nick, who is married, is like giving them power over her. Instead, she convinces herself that she already knows what her friends think of her.

Conversations With Friends is about the value of friendship. To Frances, friends are both there to confirm that she’s not worth it, but she also desperately needs their attention and love. Having friends isn’t easy, especially when you’re young. You feel like your friends are all special and amazing, and you have to be equally special and amazing in order to be accepted by them. You start acting the way you think they want you to act, and when they like you, you feel insecure because they like a version of you that isn’t real. Frances refuses to tell anyone about her alcoholic father or the disease she’s recently been diagnosed with, and in doing so pushes her friends away. She then ends up lonely and alone, just like she always thought she would. The only way to solve her problems is by accepting that her friends will support her, even if they know she isn’t perfect.

I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have any friends. I would be lonely and insecure, and I would keep telling myself I wasn’t worth it. The strange thing about Frances is that she often feels the exact same way, even though she has people who love her. She is convinced her best friend Bobbi doesn’t like her, and knows for sure that Nick doesn’t even think she’s attractive, let alone love her. Instead of asking them how they feel, Frances prefers telling herself she already knows. If you tell yourself something for a long time, you eventually start believing it. In Conversations With Friends, Frances has created this alternate truth for herself, in which she thinks her body is disgusting, in which she doesn’t belong anywhere, and in which nobody cares whether she lives or dies.

It’s ironic that many of the conversations that place in Rooney’s novel take place on a screen; Frances texts with Bobbi, and sends lengthy emails to Nick. At one point, she writes that she performs spoken word because she doesn’t want to reminded of any of the ugly poems she’s written . However, she frequently reads the words she’s exchanged with her friends, because that’s where the truth lies, while real conversations are open for interpretation. This clearly illustrates Frances’s inner conflict; she wants to strip everything of emotion, but it is impossible to do so when it comes to friendship and love.

While reading Conversations With Friends, I knew exactly what Frances was going through. Like her, I sometimes kept going in circles inside my own head telling me I’m not good enough. Like her, I sometimes told myself nobody liked me, and I often believed those thoughts because I would always be able to conjure up ‘proof’ for these assumptions. Whenever I felt that way, I would hide inside my room and have intense conversations with myself about how stupid I was. I would believe asking my friends whether they liked me would inevitably result in a negative answer. It would be easier not to talk to anyone, because they would only confirm what I already knew. (I still feel this way, occasionally, but since I did get better at opening up, these episodes never last long.)

Like Frances, I was too scared to talk about these feelings with anyone else, because they would think I was a freak. They would hate me for being insecure, because surely they liked the happy and funny Elke they had come to know and love?  I used to believe I was the only one in the entire world who felt that way. Turns out, Sally Rooney, who is exactly my age, who also studied literature, and who also writes (obviously, she’s quite a bit more talented and successful than I am), experienced the same emotions. And so do many other Millennials like me.

Conversations With Friends is proof that I’m not alone. It shows that the more we tell ourselves we know exactly who we are and what is expected of us, the more doubts we have about our identities, and the more reluctant we become to share these doubts. It doesn’t matter what age we are, it’s time to be more honest about ourselves. We should show some vulnerabilities to others, because they will support us. We should open up to our friends and really talk to them, because that’s what they’re for. Aren’t they?

Which characteristics do you look for in a friend? What did you think of Conversations With Friends? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings! 

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