Incompatible: Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends

rooneyI don’t typically post about books I didn’t finish, and I don’t want to make a big contrarian to-do about my having given up on Conversations With Friends, but it is what I’ve been reading lately and I have given up on it, so I might as well at least comment briefly on it here.

I began the novel with some skepticism but also, as always, with the hope that I’d be pleasantly surprised. I told the friend who kindly lent me her copy that I feared it was going to be yet another new novel that is “coolly underwritten,” and it is exactly that. I tried to keep an open mind, though, especially because books that are minimalist in some ways can sometimes be very powerful. For me, books like that would include all the ones I’ve ready by Kent Haruf, for instance, though not Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, which I said ultimately read to me as if Strout had “used this dispersed form to let herself off the hook.”

It wasn’t exactly, or entirely, the spareness of Conversations With Friends that put me off it, however. It was something about the quality of the sentences, which seemed flat to the point of monotonous: not just the flat affect I’ve protested against before in highly polished contemporary fiction (even really smart fiction I admire, like Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children) but wearisomely unvaried in their tone and rhythm. A sample, chosen (honest!) by just letting the book fall open anywhere:

When I arrived at the house all the windows and doors were open. I rang the doorbell anyway. When I got inside he was drying his hands on a tea towel, like he’d just finished washing up. He smiled and told me he’d been feeling nervous about seeing me again. The dog was lying on the sofa. I hadn’t seen her on the sofa before and wondered if maybe Melissa wouldn’t let her sleep there. I asked Nick why he was nervous and he laughed and made a little shrugging gesture, though one that seemed more relaxed than anxious. I leaned my back against the countertop while he folded the towel away.

I was bored stiff by the process of reading Rooney’s prose, and while I am open to arguments about how really this effect is all about the narrator’s own inadequacies in some way, I simply didn’t care enough about Frances–or anyone else in the novel, as they all seemed equal parts dull and insufferable–to press on past page 100. Whatever revelation or maturation or epiphany lies ahead for Frances, she’s going to have to go through it without me as a witness.

Is it me? Is it the book? It’s both, of course, as it always is.

Postscript: Now I’m reading Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad. How much more interesting, in every way, is this little excerpt than that quotation from Conversations with Friends? “‘The yellow globes shone jovially through the mesh of the bag. ‘She’s trying to work magic,’ thought the doctor. ‘She wants to work magic with three miserable lemons. She thinks that if she shows death she is not frightened of it, it will run away. She thinks that if she turns up at the old man’s bedside with lemons she will find him still alive.'”

8 thoughts on “Incompatible: Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends

  1. Tredynas Days May 5, 2019 / 2:19 pm

    I struggled to finish Normal People, so know exactly what you mean

  2. doradueck May 5, 2019 / 2:24 pm

    I haven’t read this one, but did just recently read “Normal People” and found it strangely compelling. I was surprised how much I began to care about the two main characters in that one. I “longed for them” on their behalf. The prose in “Normal People” is similar to what you’ve indicated above, but I found Rooney insightful on class and also psychology of her age group. Would you be willing to give Normal People a chance and see if you feel the same about it? I’d be interested to hear your reaction.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 5, 2019 / 9:12 pm

      I mean, I would never say never about (almost) any book, but I can’t see right now why I’d make Normal People a priority over the stack of other books I have to hand. I am quite ready to believe Rooney is all kinds of insightful, including in Conversations With Friends, if I could bring myself to read on … but again, I bet the same is also true of many of these other writers, so right now she’s bumped down to pretty low on my priority list.

  3. Jo VanEvery May 5, 2019 / 2:54 pm

    I’m sort of glad to hear that you do give up on things. I kind of get the point you make sometimes about the value of working through some books, but I also think we are all allowed our own taste and aren’t required to force ourselves to read things that we just don’t like. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad book (I haven’t read this so couldn’t say) but that it is, as you say in your title, incompatible with you as a reader.

  4. Christopher Lord (@dickensjunction) May 5, 2019 / 2:57 pm

    I just gave up on “A Gentleman In Moscow.” Maybe 10,000 positive Amazon reviews can’t be wrong, but it wasn’t for me. Yes, it’s lovely, and the Count has his charms, but the life & death stakes of leaving the hotel that are part of the setup just never really materialize, and the back-cover promise of him having to save a little girl fails to come to fruition until after the charming Nina in the beginning grows up and becomes a mother, all after pages upon pages of low-level conflict (but lots of loving descriptions of things like asparagus forks and fine old wines). I can’t comment on the tone-deafness of Towles’s elision of actual Russian history, but I think he would say that the Count’s bubble is part of the suspended elegance and charm and is intentional, not a result of slipshod craft. Nevertheless, people who say that Hardy and Eliot and Dickens are wordy frustrate me to no end, because books like this are truly wordy without the heft of theme, allusion, and character conflict or social observations that any of those three writers can do well even in their minor works. And since I just finished re-reading “My Antonia,” I have some sense of what a great work can be when the stakes are low, because the craft and the literary qualities (who is the protagonist? Is Antonia a projection of the narrator’s own gender desires?) of Cather leave works like Towles’s in the Nebraska dust.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 6, 2019 / 2:34 pm

      I’m not sure if you meant to leave this comment here or on my post about A Gentleman in Moscow–which, as it happens, I liked quite a bit, proving the larger point that there really are no definitive literary judgments, just the mysterious alchemy that happens when a particular reader meets a particular book.

      • Christopher Lord (@dickensjunction) May 6, 2019 / 4:11 pm

        I put it here as part of the discussion of giving up, but I also didn’t know of your review, which I have now read. I agree with virtually all of your description of the features of Towles’s book, but I was disappointed in almost every one of them. I think I could have spent a few weeks discussing those features (and having fun in the discussion) without having the same admiration for the techniques that you did. That’s what the alchemy is about, I agree. Your blog is o,ne of the most elevated on the internet that I’ve found (along with Wuthering Expectations), so I love reading it even when I disagree (which isn’t often, because I love Dickens as much as you love Eliot).

  5. tonesepia May 6, 2019 / 1:27 am

    What you have said about ‘Conversations with Friends’ is even more appropriate about Rooney’s latest book ‘Normal People’ which I read to the unfulfilling end. In addition to the dull writing about uninteresting & irrelevant trivia, the characters were shallow, unbelievable & unliveable. The only vivid character,Lorraine, is never developed. I wondered if Rooney was trying to say something about the emotional development of Ireland generally but only persisted with the misery because I found myself unexpected in hospital with nothing else to read.

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