Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Friction Within Friendship

• Bobbi and I discussed at length what Bobbi would wear to the dinner, under the guise of talking about what we should both wear.

• I was lying. Except in the sense of enriching my life, Bobbi didn’t help me write the poetry. As far as I knew she had never written creatively at all. She liked to perform dramatic monologues and sing anti-war ballads. Onstage she was the superior performer and I often glanced at her anxiously to remind myself what to do.

• I didn’t have the courage to really dislike her, but I knew I wanted to.

• This phrase, ‘if I can’, made it clear that Bobbi was trying to tell me something serious, something that couldn’t be communicated in words but instead through a shift in the way we related to each other. Not only was it nonsense for Bobbi to say ‘if I can’ at the end of her sentence, because she came from a wealthy family, read diligently and had good grades, but it didn’t make sense in the context of our relationship either. Bobbi didn’t relate to me in the ‘if I can’ sense. She related to me as a person, maybe the only person, who understood her ferocious and frightening power over circumstances and people. What she wanted, she could have, I knew that.

On Seeing Inwardly

• My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was. When I couldn’t make friends as a child, I fantasised that I was smarter than all my teachers, smarter than any other student who had been in the school before, a genius hidden among normal people. It made me feel like a spy.

• At this point I felt a weird lack of self-recognition, and I realised that I couldn’t visualise my own face or body at all. It was like someone had lifted the end of an invisible pencil and just gently erased my entire appearance. This was curious and actually not unpleasant, though I was also aware that I was cold and might have been shivering.

• Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was ‘kindness’ just another term for submission in the face of conflict?

• I panicked, I wanted to tell her. I started thinking about the heat death of the universe again. I called Nick and then hung up on him. But these were all things I did because I thought something was happening to me which turned out not to happen. The idea of the baby, with all its huge emotional gravity and its potential for lasting grief, had disappeared into nothing. I had never been pregnant. It was impossible, maybe even offensive, to grieve a pregnancy that had never happened, even though the emotions I’d felt had still been real at the time that I felt them. In the past Bobbi had been receptive to my analyses of my own misery, but this time I couldn’t trust myself to deliver the argument without weeping into the phone.

• People were always wanting me to show some weakness so they could reassure me. It made them feel worthy, I knew all about that.

On Seeing Inwards from the Outside

• These were long and intense conversations, and felt so momentous to me that I secretly transcribed parts of them from memory in the evenings. When Bobbi talked about me it felt like seeing myself in a mirror for the first time. I also looked in actual mirrors more often. I started taking a close interest in my face and body, which I’d never done before.

• I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things. Bobbi told me she thought I didn’t have a ‘real personality’, but she said she meant it as a compliment. Mostly I agreed with her assessment. At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.

• I didn’t know what caused this process, but I was glad the poems were only ever performed and never published. They floated away ethereally to the sound of applause. Real writers, and also painters, had to keep on looking at the ugly things they had done for good. I hated that everything I did was so ugly, but also that I lacked the courage to confront how ugly it was.

• They took her radical politics as a kind of bourgeois self-deprecation, nothing very serious, and talked to her about restaurants or where to stay in Rome. I felt out of place in these situations, ignorant and bitter, but also fearful of being discovered as a moderately poor person and a communist.

• Nick said nothing, and neither did I. His silence was significant and mine was not because his opinion on whether things would be fine, unlike mine, was important.

• I thought of myself as an independent person, so independent that the opinions of others were irrelevant to me. Now I was afraid that Nick was right: I isolated myself from criticism so I could behave badly without losing my sense of righteousness.

On Cruelty

• As a woman I have no county, I said. It felt good to belittle Nick’s friends, although they seemed harmless.

• He had screwed me up in his hand like paper and tossed me away.

• His voice wandered up and down the tonal scale when he spoke. His drunkenness made me feel unclean. I wanted to shower or eat a fresh piece of fruit.

• Bobbi herself was the only person who found it amusing, but that didn’t seem to bother her; she looked like it had played out just as she intended. I realised, stupidly late, that she had almost certainly put my name into the bowl in the first place. I was reminded of her wildness, her tendency to get inside things and break them open, and I felt fearful of her, not for the first time. She wanted to expose something private about how I felt, to turn it from a secret into something else, a joke or a game.

• I couldn’t tell whether she was being affectionate or vitriolic; she had a way of making them seem like the same thing.

• That I had managed to leave any lasting impact on Valerie filled me with a sense of spiteful triumph. Although she had ignored me at dinner, I was now the interesting thing she wanted to unravel. In this triumphantly recriminatory mood, I sent her the new story, without even looking it over again for typos. The world was like a crumpled ball of newspaper to me, something to kick around.

• I thought of the story I had sent to Valerie that morning, a story which I now remembered was explicitly about Bobbi, a story which characterised Bobbi as a mystery so total I couldn’t endure her, a force I couldn’t subjugate with my will, and the love of my life.

• In short if you’re sleeping with my husband because you secretly believe that one day he will be your husband, then you’re making a serious mistake. He’s not going to divorce me & if he did he would never marry you. Equally if you’re sleeping with him because you believe his affection proves you to be a good person, or even a smart or attractive person, you should know that Nick is not primarily attracted to good-looking or morally worthy people. He likes partners who take complete responsibility for all his decisions, that’s all. You will not be able to draw a sustainable sense of self-respect from this relationship you’re in. I’m sure you find his total acquiescence charming now, but over the course of a marriage it actually becomes exhausting. Fighting with him is impossible because he’s pathologically submissive, & you can’t scream at him without hating yourself.

• And I mean, you took such enjoyment in destroying it. Suddenly I’m looking around my own fucking house, thinking: is this sofa ugly? Is it kitsch to drink wine? And things I felt good about before started to make me feel pathetic. Having a husband instead of just fucking someone else’s husband. Having a book deal instead of writing nasty short stories about people I know and selling them to prestigious magazines. I mean, you came into my house with your fucking nose piercing like: oh, I’ll really enjoy eviscerating this whole set-up. She’s so establishment.

On Nuances of Love

• It was at this point I saw Nick enter from the door at the back. He looked slightly breathless, like he had taken the stairs too quickly. Instantly I looked away and pretended I hadn’t noticed him. I could see that he was trying to catch my eye and that if I returned his gaze he would give me a kind of apologetic expression. I found this idea too intense to think about, like the glare of a bare lightbulb.

• He drew away from me after a few seconds and wiped his mouth, but tenderly, as if he was trying to make sure it was still there. Neither of us gestured or waved, we just looked at one another, as if we were already having a private conversation that couldn’t be overheard.

• The inside of my body was hot like oil. I was possessed by an overwhelming and intense energy which seemed to threaten me. Please, I was saying. Please, please.

• The moment he touched me I felt hot and passive as if I were asleep. Any strength I had seemed to leave me completely and when I tried to speak I stammered.

• At times I thought this was the worst misery I had experienced in my life, but it was also a very shallow misery, which at any time could have been relieved completely by a word from him and transformed into idiotic happiness.

• Frances, I want you so badly, he said. I closed my eyes. The words seemed to go past my mind, like they went straight into my body and stayed there. When I spoke, my voice sounded low and sultry. Will you die if you can’t have me? I said. And he said: yes.

• But what happens if I do tell her? he said. I mean, what would you want to happen? I don’t get the impression that you want me to move in with you. I laughed and so did he. Although we were laughing about the impossibility of our relationship, it still felt nice.

• The problem isn’t that you’re married, I said. The problem is that I love you and you obviously don’t love me. He took a deep breath in and said: you’re being unbelievably dramatic, Frances. Fuck you, I said.

• Even though I had known Nick didn’t love me, I had continued to let him have sex with me whenever he wanted, out of desperation and a naive hope that he didn’t understand what he was inflicting on me. Now even that hope was gone. He knew that I loved him, that he was exploiting my tender feelings for him, and he didn’t care. There was nothing to be done.

• I read his email again and again while I tried to decide. On one reading it might give an impression of devotion and acquiescence, and on another it appeared indecisive or ambivalent. I didn’t know what I wanted from him.

• Things like this can be undone. But I knew that he would never come back again, not really. He wasn’t only mine any more, that part was over. Melissa knew things that I didn’t know. After everything that had happened between them they still desired one another.

• If two people make each other happy then it’s working. You could smile at a stranger on the street and make them happy, he said. We’re talking about something more complicated.

Thought Provoking Instances

• I was appropriating my fear of total disappearance as a spiritual practice. I was inhabiting disappearance as something that could reveal and inform, rather than totalise and annihilate.

• “There’s something beautiful about the way you think and feel, or the way that you experience the world is beautiful in some way.” This remark returned to me repeatedly for days after the email arrived. I smiled involuntarily when I thought of it, like I was remembering a private joke.

• You can love more than one person, she said.

• Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality Bobbi: and yet also it’s subservient and facilitatory Bobbi: i.e. mothers selflessly raising children without any profit motive Bobbi: which seems to contradict the demands of the market at one level Bobbi: and yet actually just functions to provide workers for free

• I wanted to hurt myself again, in order to feel returned to the safety of my own physical body.

• Maybe niceness is the wrong metric, I said. Of course it’s really about power, Bobbi agreed. But it’s harder to work out who has the power, so instead we rely on ‘niceness’ as a kind of stand-in.

• My relationship with you is also produced by your relationship with Melissa, and with Nick, and with your childhood self, etc., etc. I wanted things for myself because I thought I existed. You’re going to write back and explain what Lacan really meant.

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

• Although I couldn’t specify why exactly, I felt certain that Melissa was less interested in our writing process now that she knew I wrote the material alone. I knew the subtlety of this change would be enough for Bobbi to deny it later, which irritated me as if it had already happened. I was starting to feel adrift from the whole set-up, like the dynamic that had eventually revealed itself didn’t interest me, or even involve me. I could have tried harder to engage myself, but I probably resented having to make an effort to be noticed.

• How’s your mother holding up? Oh, it’s migraine season again. We’re all tiptoeing around like fucking Trappist monks.

• 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.

• I couldn’t stop the tears so I just laughed self-effacingly instead, to show that I wasn’t invested in the crying.

• I looked out at the garden, at the bird-feeder hanging off the birch tree. My mother favoured some species of birds over others; the feeder was for the benefit of small and appealingly vulnerable ones. Crows were completely out of favour. She chased them away when she spotted them. They’re all just birds, I pointed out. She said yes, but some birds can fend for themselves.

• The non-existent baby entered a new category of non-existence, that is, things which had not stopped existing but in fact had never existed.

• I loved them both so much in this moment that I wanted to appear in front of them like a benevolent ghost and sprinkle blessings into their lives. Thank you, I wanted to say. Thank you both. You are my family now.

• We were silent for a few seconds. I felt blissfully tired, like each cell in my body was winding down into a deep private sleep of its own.

• You know I went up to my room and waited for you, right? I mean for hours. And at first I really thought you would come. It was probably the most wretched I ever felt in my life, this kind of ecstatic wretchedness that in a way I was practically enjoying. Because even if you did come upstairs, what then? The house was full of people, it’s not like anything was going to happen. But every time I thought of going back down again I would imagine hearing you on the stairs, and I couldn’t leave, I mean I physically couldn’t. Anyway, how I felt then, knowing that you were close by and feeling completely paralysed by it, this phone call is very similar. If I told you where my car is right now, I don’t think I’d be able to leave, I think I would have to stay here just in case you changed your mind about everything. You know, I still have that impulse to be available to you.

• I closed my eyes. Things and people moved around me, taking positions in obscure hierarchies, participating in systems I didn’t know about and never would. A complex network of objects and concepts. You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position. Come and get me, I said.

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