Normal People and Conversations with Friends – BOOK REVIEW

It was a string of Instagram posts that introduced me to Sally Rooney; it was a conversation at work that persuaded me to read her. One of my former colleagues said to me one lunchtime, “I keep hearing things about that Sally Rooney and I’m not sure how much longer I can ignore her!”

It would be accurate to say that Sally Rooney has taken the literary world by storm: being hailed as a truly “millennial author” and even as the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”, her books have been met with widespread praise by readers and critics alike (which is particularly impressive considering these are her debut and second novel).

The reader is instantly arrested by Rooney’s stark, raw dialogue – whilst the absence of speech marks deeply disturbed my inner English Teacher, I plunged headfirst into this original style of writing and felt myself whipped up into the worlds of these Irish, twenty-somethings navigating the vastly complex intricacies of their often complicated relationships. The dialogue and bare description, I believe, makes Rooney’s novels so readable; from the first page, we have become a fly-on-the-wall to the conversations between friends, enemies and future lovers. It is her ability to construct such realistic, believable and engaging dialogue that lends to her success.

Conversations with Friends is Rooney’s debut, and follows the first-person narration of Frances, an aspiring writer and student, who with her friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi, befriends famous journalist Melissa and her actor husband Nick. When Frances and Nick become closer, Rooney examines the implications on these individuals’ lives, their relationships and sense of selves. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and finished it in a single sitting (albeit I managed it during a long haul flight). In particular, the development of Frances and Nick’s relationship, shrouded in taboo and deception, was surprisingly moving, despite being conscious of its doomed destination. Normal Friends however uses a close third-person voice to alternate between the perspectives of Connell and Marianne, two school peers who couldn’t be more different. However, after a single conversation, Rooney follows their relationship over the years, documenting their time throughout university as they come to terms with their past and present selves. Out of the two, I preferred Normal People purely for its range in emotional breadth and ability to construct a humorous, devastating and poignant modern love story.

Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Both books are set in Ireland, specifically within Dublin from the perspectives of university students – Rooney, as an alumnus of Trinity College Dublin, confessed to basing her characters’ experiences very much on her own. This has proven to be extremely effective in allowing her to create realistic characters who accurately convey common anxieties faced by many young adults in the twenty-first century. Particularly in Normal People, I found myself desperately rooting for these characters and wanting to know what happened to them after the novel, forgetting that they do not exist after seeing aspects of myself and my friends within these two protagonists.

However, one criticism I have of Rooney’s writing is her depiction of mental health within her books. This is perhaps a controversial point, as I have read many reviews which have praised her stark and raw portrayal of mental health issues. I personally found that the moments which dealt with severe mental health issues were too brief and lacking empathy. Whilst this may have been Rooney’s way of depicting her characters’ attitudes towards their own mental health struggles, I found that these moments were not adequately developed in the scenes leading up to them, and so fell flat. Occasionally, I would find myself thinking, “Oh, he has depression now,” and would be disappointed at the almost unsympathetic portrayal of something which could have been explored with greater depth and nuance.

Nevertheless, Rooney’s books have managed to forge a new, modern genre of fiction, re-writing the rules of dialogue whilst creating incredibly realistic and well-developed characters that despite their flaws (Rooney is not generous, her characters are very flawed!), you cannot help rooting for them throughout their struggles. The writing is incredibly witty and sharp and what I love most about Rooney’s book is its ability to translate the moral ambiguity we face in modern everyday life (from data scandals, to our growing complacency in the face of climate destruction, to ethical issues surrounding privacy online) into the microcosms of these young people finding their feet in the world. I would highly recommend both books, and I look forward to Rooney’s next publication.

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