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Crossed wires in love and sex
book review

Crossed wires in love and sex

by Natalia PIKNA 2 min. 10.06.2022
Novel notes that instant messaging and SMS often fail to ease eternal questions
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Are we perpetually doomed to confusion and misunderstanding about relationships and sex, no matter how much instant messaging and SMS chains are supposed to help?

The 2017 début novel by Irish writer Sally Rooney “Conversations with friends”, now adapted to the small screen by the BBC and Hulu, wonders how incisive can words – or their lack – be?

The novel explores the relationships between two best friends and ex-lovers, college students Frances and Bobbi, and a 30-year-old married couple, Nick and Melissa, who seem to need external drama for their relationship to function.

While the plot winds through extramarital affairs and provides plenty of explosive storylines, its main force rests on exploring the subtleties of human communication: texts, phone calls, conversations, emails answered and unanswered, outbursts of rage, miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Rooney smartly adds to the perpetual problem of confusion the layer of how this problem is further complicated by instant communication. The book looks at the impersonal nature of electronic messaging, which can be dismissed in real life as if it had never been sent yet also permanently records conversations for better or for worse.

Frances notes a truth captured in the Latin expression "verba volant, scripta manent", or "words fly, writings remain". Frances notes “that textual evidence of her past fondness for me would survive her actual fondness if necessary”.

Ambiguity seems to permeate all communication in this novel, with the subtle manipulation that can transpire even in honest friendships.

“I knew that she was being strategic, and that she wanted me to ask, so I didn’t”, Frances comments on an exchange with her friend.

The characters are skillfully multi-dimensional. An extraordinarily handsome actor suffers from low self-esteem and depression. A published writer feels the need to compete with a 21-year-old. And a talented young performer and master debater feels too incompetent for any meaningful occupation.

Yet it feels as though we are always missing one piece of information that would completely reveal the characters to us – as if one more conversation, an honest one, was needed.

The narration Frances offers is thus very self-aware, including of its seeming contradictions, which only enhances the message of the novel. A self-declared communist, she admits as she slowly integrates herself into the fancy lives of Nick and Melissa: “Of course, I secretly liked all the expensive utensils they had in their kitchen”.

As she narrates, we learn Frances is cursed with an alcoholic dad, restricted funds, and physical ailments. She is almost painfully self-critical and self-effacing, and she keeps returning to the things that harm her physically and mentally almost as punishment.

Indeed, even the internal world of our protagonist is not spared from communication issues - in this case between her intellect and emotions. But we hope it might mean Frances just has some more growing up to do.

A deeply psychological yet thrilling novel, this is a meditation on friendship, human relationships and their fragility, on conversations and miscommunications.

It is easy to see why “Conversations with friends” was an instant success and propelled Rooney to fame along with her follow-up “Normal People”, which enjoyed great success as both a book and a series.

When you close “Conversations with friends”, its is impossible not to have been affected. As the narrator says: “Something being over is not the same as something never having happened.”

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