Sally Rooney’s debut novel was a phenomenon. It got people talking, tapping into the zeitgeist in a way that catapulted it onto bestseller tables and lists. Now it’s on the verge of being turned into a BBC series. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid reading it until now; not a conscious choice, I hasten to add, but simply the accident of having too many books and not enough time. It was worth the wait, though I must confess that my primary emotion on finishing it was relief that I am no longer of Frances’s and Bobbi’s generation. How exhausting it all seems in retrospect: the relentless posturing; the confusion of sarcasm with chic; the vulnerability of not yet knowing who you are; and the conviction that identity can only be discovered by taking on the world alone, anew, afresh. And how perfectly Rooney writes about that awkward age of self-definition, following two robustly vivid protagonists through a heady, sun-drenched summer. A delightful, very modern comedy of manners; but comedy in its darkest, most ironic hue.
The deep irony of being twenty-one is that your immaturity manifests itself precisely in the conviction that you are desperately mature. We all fall under this delusion at the time. Rooney’s protagonists are Frances and Bobbi: former schoolfriends, former girlfriends, now self-consciously bored and anarchic students who perform spoken-word poetry together. In a telling deconstruction of their dynamic, the poetry is written by Frances; the performance is all Bobbi. One evening they meet the photographer and writer Melissa, who asks to write a profile of them for a magazine. A hospitable drink at Melissa’s house turns into a series of dinners, during which the girls meet Melissa’s gorgeous actor husband Nick. As Frances falls under Nick’s spell, Bobbi flirts energetically with Melissa, both of them tantalised by the idea of being drawn into a sophisticated adult drama. Over time, however, the developing relationship between the foursome reveals the grim truth: grown-up life, despite its links and dramas and promise of profundity, is actually just as confusing and unsatisfying as the girls’ own newly adult sphere.
Of course, being twenty-one, the girls are confident that they have the upper hand. Their eyes aren’t clouded with bourgeois fatuity like the institution of marriage. They are committed to new paradigms of living, as proven by the long arguments they’ve had on the subject with their friends, often with reference to cutting-edge philosophers and theorists. They are determined to avoid the corporate trap: Bobbi, because her wealthy family keep her from needing to work right now; and Frances because she fiercely believes that she would be ethically wrong to earn more than $16,100 – which is what, according to Wikipedia, everyone would receive if all the money in the world were equally divided among all the people. They are so certain of themselves, so confident that they can embark on whatever life holds for them without getting hurt; and yet, as Rooney shows us, there is so much to be hurt. Frances, our narrator, is struggling to be cool and detached and slightly heartless, but underneath there is still so much she doesn’t understand – whether that is the complicated relationship between Melissa and Nick, her own relationship with Bobbi, or even what she wants to do with her life. While this summer doesn’t quite give her all the answers, it shows her the need to ask the questions out loud – because compassion sometimes comes from the strangest places.
This reminded me so much of Lena Durham’s Girls, though Frances and Bobbi are even younger and more so than the characters in that series. Like Girls, it introduces you to characters who are spiky, arrogant and misguided, but who are also embarrassingly relatable in their callow youthfulness. It invites you to tiptoe back through your own memories of being that young – and I can’t tell you how amused I was to find that Nick and Melissa, as the ‘older’ couple, are actually only in their early thirties. Younger than me! But maybe I am getting old, because Frances and Bobbi really did feel very young to me. It would’ve been so interesting to have read this book when I was twenty-one. Would I have admired Bobbi and Frances for their sophistication; for their incisive arguments about politics and society; for their convictions, so more coherent and radical than any I ever mustered? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that I would have related to them in an entirely different way than I do now – and that, my friends, is the sign of a good book, which changes its face depending on when you read it, and can seem very different when read at sixteen to when read at thirty-two (Memoirs of Hadrian was an excellent example of this for me: magical both times, but in different lights).
In a sense, the entire book is an intimate drama of four (primarily two) people trying to figure out how to be, and how to give others space to do the same. It’s about female friendship and how that can be amazingly supportive and wonderful, but also frustrating and competitive. It’s about people learning that being clever is not the same as being cold and slightly heartless in a witty sarcastic way. It’s about learning that sometimes it’s important to feel and, even more, to ask for help, even if you don’t think anyone will answer. And it isn’t just about the callow youth as they fumble into adulthood. Heavens, no: Rooney makes it clear that being in your thirties doesn’t magically make you sensitive or knowledgeable or honest or clued-in to what’s happening in your own little life, let alone the world around you. On the surface, the book sparkles with cleverness, like the chill of a sharply-cut diamond; but dig just a little further and you’re rewarded with a warm, humane and compassionate look at the messiness that sometimes arises just from being alive.
Very enjoyable, bright and smart: a compelling glance into a sliver of four lives. Needless to say, I’m now looking forward to reading Normal People, Rooney’s second novel, which has been waiting patiently on my Kindle for some time.