Sally Rooney’s debut novel has won all sorts of acclaim: winner of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, Telegraph Book of the Year, and Sunday Times Book of the Year. So this highly praised, loudly talked of book found its way onto my to-read list. Bought on a Wednesday and finished on a Friday, the addiction took me by surprise. It’s described on the front cover as bright, yes, but for me that brightness was blinding, uncomfortable. This is not light and happy, this is stark and unyielding.
Frances is 21, cool-headed, observant; a student in Dublin who writes poetry and performs them with her best friend and ex-girlfriend, Bobbi, to some acclaim. They come to the attention of Melissa and are drawn into her world with her husband, Nick, quickly becoming a ménage-à-quatre. Melissa and Nick’s life is alluring, glamorous. Both in their 30s, he is a successful actor, she a writer and photographer. They summer in a house in Brittany, hold raucous dinner parties, live in a world of beautiful homes and comfortable wealth. Frances unexpectedly becomes closer to Nick, forcing her to confront her own vulnerabilities and engage with the real power dynamics of her relationships with others. There is something so blistering about Frances’ youth, the rapidity with which she falls, that this group forms; the intensity of feeling.
This book is compelling, and at times horrible. Frances is a deeply dispassionate and irritatingly naive narrator. Perhaps that is my projection onto her as I watch her put herself in harms way. The distance from which she insists on attempting to understand herself and her own body, as well as others around her, actually causes harm; is self-sabotaging. It was horrible to witness Bobbi’s power games over Frances with her developing relationship with Melissa; it was heartbreaking to watch Frances cut herself off as she became closer to Nick. These are very real, very complex, very flawed characters who can be deeply unpleasant to each other. Rooney’s talent in is keeping you reading; I did just keep coming back.
Unwittingly the pace picks up and it becomes gripping. The cold narrator is spinning into a world that you just know cannot have a good ending. Without acknowledging the style change we ramp up from this college world of giddy relationships and intellectual challenge to this compulsive, damaging ride. Maybe I’m making it sound heavier than it is. The humour is acrid, the pacing is fast, it is addictive, but not in a pleasurable way. It is not romance or thriller but it is about literature and love and you just don’t know what is going to happen.
So what is the verdict? Rooney is undoubtably very talented. The book just held me in its grasp, I was dazzled and pulled along. Rooney has the sharpest eye for the cruelties in human relationships, without being cruel to the reader. I read it all so quickly and cannot quite articulate how or why. I am overwhelmed by this novel, it is as if the author has a terrifying talent who has chosen to hold back just enough so I keep coming back for more. I am looking forward to Rooney’s next book.