What to read after Conversations with Friends
Sally Rooney is a name that’s hard to escape. With three novels now under her belt, the young Irish author has skyrocketed to success. Her second novel, Normal People, was adapted into a 2020 TV series, where her tortuous love story between rich, miserable Marianne and handsome, working-class Connell gained instant acclaim.
Following on from the success of Normal People, attention has now turned to her debut, Conversations with Friends, which details the complex relationships between literature student Francis, her one-time-lover now best-friend/performance poetry partner Bobbi, and the enigmatic artistic couple they become involved with. Also snapped up for a screenplay, the TV adaption should be released in May, and promises to be every bit as riveting as Normal People.
But what comes next? If you read and loved Conversations with Friends, then why not try one of these titles:
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Fellow Dublin author Naoise Dolan has, predictably, been compared to Rooney herself: such is the lot of the young (female) Irish writer these days. But if you enjoyed the painful relationship dynamics of Conversations with Friends, then you will love Dolan’s novel and its protagonist Ava. At twenty-two years old, she is already sick of her life in Ireland, so strikes out for Hong Kong to become an English tutor. When she meets wealthy English banker Julian, he offers her a chance to experience his own lavish lifestyle, and the two swiftly become embroiled in a financial and sexual relationship. Then, suddenly, Julian leaves. Adrift once more, Naoise soon becomes involved with Edith, a Hong Kong born lawyer who leaves her tulips in the hallway and creeps into her heart. But when Julian announces that he is returning, Ava realises she must make a choice.
Packed with the kind of dry, witty melancholy which has become the hallmark of the ‘millennial novel’, Dolan’s writing is sharp and fiercely contemporary, covering everything from the triangulations of money and love to climate change, in a coming-of-age tale for the modern day.
Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donaghue
Jane Peters has just turned 26 and feels like her life is falling apart. Her long-term boyfriend has left her for someone else, and she is struggling to get ahead at her job with a marketing company, in which she is one of many young women working beneath older (and often stupider) men. Her solace is her online alter-ego, agony aunt ‘Jolly Politely’, as whom she dishes out sage advice to strangers struggling with their own personal lives. But when her charismatic boss, Clem, begins to take an interest in her, Jane ignores any warnings Jolly might have given, and embarks upon a tumultuous affair which could jeopardize everything she holds dear.
O’Donaghue’s novel is far more than yet another rendition of the office affair, but instead offers something much darker and more intelligent: a sinister contemporary Gothic exploring the power dynamics of age and gender, alongside the slow rot of ambition in this capitalist age.
Luster by Raven Leilani
If you enjoyed Rooney’s complex portrayal of relationships but found yourself wishing for a wider representation of the millennial experience, then you might enjoy Raven Leilani’s blistering debut: Luster.
Edie is not doing well. She dreams of becoming a painter, but instead is living in a mice-infested flat and working as a one of only two Black women for a New York Publishing company, where she is constantly on probation and spends more time sexting Eric - a married man twenty-three years her senior - than concentrating on her career.
When she loses her job, she finds herself living in the suburbs of New Jersey with her white lover, his wife Rebecca, and their Black adopted teenager, Akila. As she adjusts to her new life, her passion for Eric wanes, but she finds herself drawn into complicated, though wildly differing, relationships with both Rebecca and Akila.
Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, Luster is at once astonishingly beautiful and compulsively readable, and Leilani’s portrayal of the power dynamics between Edie and Eric highlight with painful accuracy just what it means to be a young Black woman in a world which was made for white men. This is one you should burn through and then read again slowly, savouring every sentence.
Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel
If what grabbed you about Conversations with Friends was the intense portrayal of female friendships and desire, then look no further than Other People’s Clothes by Calle Henkel. Henkel’s astonishing debut takes place in the early 2000s – an era which is currently undergoing something of a Gen-Z revival – as two American art students are brought together in the smoky, sweaty pressure-cooker of Berlin. Mourning the recent murder of her best friend, Zoe is desperate to block out the pain, while Hailey worships celebrity culture and wants nothing more than to become an art star. When the two girls find an apartment listed on Craigslist belonging to a famous crime novelist, Beatrice Becks, they are thrilled to have found such a luxurious home. But slowly they start to suspect that Beatrice has never left the city, that she is watching them and that they are now the subject of her new book. Transforming the apartment into an exclusive club, Hailey and Zoe begin to host ever more elaborate parties in an attempt to become worthy protagonists. But as events spiral out of control towards an inevitable tragedy, Zoe starts to wonder: whose story are they living?
Razor-sharp and darkly funny, this book tackles the nature of noughties celebrity and crime culture, alongside the pain and pitfalls of navigating the world as a young woman.
None of This is Serious by Catherine Prasifka
This debut novel by Catherine Prasifka has already been touted as one to watch. Prasifka, who is actually Rooney’s sister-in-law, has created a book which is so surreally brilliant and speculative, it is sure to leave an impression.
Sophie is feeling unstable. Having graduated from university, she watches as her friends begin the next stage of their lives: moving out of their parent’s houses, moving away from the city, moving into new jobs. All things which she is failing to do. Hopelessly in love with one best friend, overshadowed by the other and constantly compared to her beautiful twin, Sophie is fed up with feeling like she is on the outside looking in. Then, at a party, a world-altering event shatters what was already fragile, and Sophie finds herself split between this new reality, and her incessant scrolling of social media.
With sparse dialogue and frequent use of instant messages, this is an extraordinarily modern novel, which fuses the agony of coming-of-age with the disconcerting infusion of the internet into our daily lives.