Literary Spotlight: Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

On a rare and blessed occasion, London sees a sunny day, or rather, a day comprised of sunny moments. Today was one of them. It was a Wednesday and I had no lectures to attend, so I decided to take the bus into Kingston. Before leaving campus, I filled my black Dooney & Bourke tote bag with miscellaneous items that seemed practical: a comb, my phone charger, lipstick. Flippantly, I tossed a few rings, gold ones, into the bag in case my hands began to feel empty throughout the day. Then, in the most ceremonious way possible, I lifted a novel off my desk, placed it in the bottom of the tote bag, and felt prepared. The novel was Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney and, even if it sat at the bottom of my bag the entire day, that would be enough. I do this sometimes with books: I carry them with me for company.

The bus arrived on time. I tapped my Oyster card on the scanner and walked up a narrow staircase to the top level. Near the back, I took a seat by the window. A blonde haired mother with her son sat in front of me. As she took a call, the boy leaned his head on her shoulder. I tried to imagine the weight of someone’s head on my own shoulder, but the prospect made me lonesome like a spice cabinet with no visitors. I looked through the foggy bus window to advert my mind. A group of uniformed school kids were texting and galloping toward a corner store, sharing a bag of Percy Pigs. The girls wore knee high socks with buckled shoes and the boys had neckties and blazer jackets. I remembered one of my Irish friends telling me that children in school uniforms ride the bus for free. It was an minuscule characteristic of the city that I hadn’t known, and the image of school children piling onto a bus without rummaging through their pockets made me very happy.

When I arrived in Kingston, I felt shadowy and disoriented like waking up from a stone heavy sleep. I was only vaguely familiar with the area since participating in a university sponsored walking tour a few weeks before. To test myself, I decided to walk in the direction of my instincts. I passed an Orthodox church. This is where we marveled at the fat pigeon, I thought. I checked the photo gallery on my phone and found the picture I had taken of an overstuffed pigeon wobbling on the church’s pathway. I began to smile at how intrigued we had been. How we compared the body mass of this bird to the ones we knew back home. American pigeons are slimmer, we all joked.

After twenty minutes of walking, the shopping district unraveled in front of me. I was only looking for one store, Anthropologie. I spent the rest of my morning shuffling through the crowded sale racks and trying on oversized jackets and sweaters. In the home decor section, a drawer of motley knobs kept me occupied. Each was intricately hand-painted. I held a turquoise knob against the ceiling light and imagined how my white dresser back home might look with such an organic accent.

It was almost one when I left the store. My stomach curled and groaned. I searched the internet for local Italian restaurants on my phone. The one I picked was only two minutes away.

By the time I settled into the booth and ordered a glass of white wine, my mind started craving Rooney’s ultra-simplistic, thought-provoking prose. I collected the book from the bottom of my bag. Before opening it, the cover stopped me. I looked at it with fresh, unknowing eyes like it was my first time. My bookmark was in chapter six. I had drawn a box around a passage in pencil. It is about the protagonist, Frances, and her mother. They are sitting in the garden. In this moment, Frances has low energy and is acting passive. The passage reads,

“…she [France’s mother] offered her hand to help me up. Her hands were large and sallow, not at all like mine. They were full of the practicality I lacked, and my hand fit into them like something that needed fixing,” (Rooney 48).

I looked at my own hands then and remembered how I had put rings into my bag that morning in case my hands looked or felt barren. I continued reading. The waitress placed a bowl of salad with haloumi cheese in front of me. I looked up to acknowledge her, but I only saw her back walking away from me.

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I read seven or eight chapters. Between paragraphs, I would have some salad or a sip of wine. There is no “good” place to stop reading, I thought. The story unfolds like tangerine skin, slowly and with calculated focus. It pulls you along. You walk along the tangerine skin path as it keeps growing and unraveling sustenance and you want to scoop it all up with your bare hands. Rooney’s language is simple, childish, and irresistible. By this I mean that my lecturer asked us to think about this sentence:

“Melissa used a big professional camera and kept lots of different lenses in a special camera pouch,” (Rooney 3).

The lecturer argued that this language is utterly juvenile; you could pass this sentence to a fourth grader and they would understand. Of course the language’s simplicity extends beyond basic sentence structure and the use plain words. Rooney’s straightforwardness juxtaposes the novel’s modernity and exploration of extramarital relationships. Nothing is too complicated, yet everything is. Modern love need not be crippling, yet it manifests as such.

I left the restaurant with prose dripping down my wrists and a slight buzz from the wine. As I walked to the bus stop, I continued reading, looking up every now and then to make sure I was going the right way.

At dinner that evening, I sat with a group of friends in the dining hall. I had brought the novel with me and it was sitting beside my tray of food.

“Is that a good book?” asked my friend. My eyes widened. I looked at all of my friends like a ferocious librarian and said, “All of you need to read this…please.”

To conclude my obsession with Ms. Rooney’s work, I will leave you with what I have decided is my favorite passage after having read it for the second time. It comes from chapter twenty-four.

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