Conversations with Friends
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Conversations with Friends is Irish writer Sally Rooney’s debut novel, published in 2017. Rooney wrote the novel when she was 25 and followed it up quickly with Normal People in 2018 and Beautiful World, Where Are You in 2021. All three works have garnered award nominations and the first two have been adapted into television series. Conversations with Friends tells the story of Frances and Bobbi— college students, best friends, and former girlfriends—and Nick and Melissa, a married couple they meet. When Frances and Nick begin a secret affair, a ripple effect eventually causes all four people to investigate what they want from themselves and each other. The novel was nominated for the 2018 Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers and the 2018 Folio Prize.
After Bobbi and Frances, best friends and former girlfriends, perform spoken-word poetry at a Dublin venue one summer night, they meet Melissa, a writer and photographer who is interested in profiling them for a magazine. She begins inviting Frances and Bobbi to her house and meeting them at local literary events on a regular basis but is clearly more captivated by Bobbi than Frances. Bobbi returns the sentiment, developing a crush on Melissa.
Meanwhile, Frances begins a flirtation with Melissa’s husband, Nick, a handsome actor who works steadily in film and television and on the stage but has not yet broken through to stardom. At first, the two just trade flirty comments when Bobbi and Melissa are not paying attention to them, but then they develop a steady written communication over email where the flirtation escalates. Finally, Frances kisses him when they have a moment alone at Melissa’s birthday party. He later apologizes, claiming he should have known better as he is 11 years older than her, but when Melissa goes out of town soon afterward, the two begin a sexual relationship. Frances does not tell anyone, including Bobbi.
Nick leaves to film on set in Scotland, and the affair breaks down while he is away. Both Nick and Frances are bad at communicating honestly with each other in any context, especially over email and instant messenger. They struggle to separate ironic comments from genuine ones, and Frances evades his prompts to tell him what she wants from the relationship. They break up, but shortly after, Bobbi tells Frances that Melissa has invited them to stay with her and Nick in a French villa.
Frances and Bobbi go to the villa, where Nick and Frances make up and resume their affair, despite the danger of being discovered. The others notice the sparks between them, leading Melissa to eventually ask each of them, separately, if they are having an affair, which they deny. At the end of the trip, Bobbi finds out about the affair when she catches Frances in Nick’s room.
As the college year starts back in Dublin, Frances struggles to manage her relationship with Nick alongside other emerging pressures in her life. Her father, an alcoholic who was sometimes abusive in her childhood, is growing increasingly depressed and bad at caring for himself. He starts forgetting to deposit Frances’s allowance into her bank account, leaving her unable to buy food for herself. Also, she begins having debilitating pain episodes with vaginal bleeding. When she tries to go about a normal day during one of these episodes at school, she faints. During these troubles, however, a magazine editor agrees to publish a short story Frances has written. The story’s main character is obviously based on Bobbi, but Frances does not tell Bobbi about the story’s existence or impending publication.
Meanwhile, Frances’s relationship with Nick progresses and they decide that they can no longer go on deceiving Melissa. After Nick confesses, Melissa writes Frances a long email in which she indicates that she plans to stay married to Nick but grant him acceptance of the affair with Frances because she can see that it has greatly improved his mental health. Though Frances does not know how to feel about Melissa’s decision at first, she and Bobbi eventually fall back into friendship with Nick and Melissa.
Frances can handle this interesting arrangement if she thinks Nick and Melissa’s marriage is just a formality and not a relationship built on mutual respect and passion, which is what the marriage looked like when she met Nick. As time goes by, however, that changes. One day in November, Frances gets diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition that has been causing and likely will continue to cause chronic pain. The same evening, Nick calls to tell her that he and Melissa are sleeping together again. Though Nick and Frances try to stay together for a few more weeks, the relationship is now too fraught and complicated, and they break up.
The breakup comes at a particularly bad time, as Frances is also now isolated from Bobbi. Melissa sent Frances’s story to Bobbi, and Bobbi is furious that Frances did not tell her about it. Frances goes through a dark period of isolation while trying to deal with her precarious finances, her chronic pain, and the emotional blow of the breakup. Eventually, she apologizes to and makes up with Bobbi, and the two resume the sexual relationship they had in high school, although they do not label themselves “girlfriends.” Bobbi is eager to keep the relationship loose and undefined rather than follow predetermined social scripts.
In the novel’s final chapter, Nick calls Frances by mistake, having meant to call Melissa. The two talk for a long time, and at the end of the call, he confesses that he still has strong feelings for her. She tells him to come pick her up.