According to Sam MacLaughlin, the manager of McNally Jackson Books in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the lemon-yellow paperback of Irish writer Sally Rooney’s 2017 novel, Conversations With Friends, has been flying off the shelves, which bodes well for her next book, the upcoming Normal People, out in the US in April.
“We sell tons and tons of it,” he said, noting that the striking cover — an Alex Katz painting of two young women staring at presumptive readers — has also played a part in its popularity. Some people hate it, he said, but it also pops in the bookstore. He added, “Lots of people have been coming in and asking whether we have Normal People and we have to say no, it’s not out until April. They’ve been asking about it since they see people reading it on the subway.”
Over at Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic, Conversations With Friends remains on the best-seller list, sharing space with more recent releases like Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. A bookseller there mentioned that Rooney’s book is purchased primarily by young women who are college-aged to late thirties.
“It’s so specific and it’s weirdly eternal,” says Slate book critic Laura Miller, discussing Rooney’s writing in the context of her debut, which seemingly came out of nowhere in 2017 and elevated the author to the status of millennial soothsayer — a writer born in 1991 who addresses life on the internet, as well as life after an economic crash, in novels driven by love and desire. Rooney’s early champions have included Zadie Smith, another once-wunderkind who told Elle magazine that she loves “debuts where you just can’t believe it’s a debut,” and says Conversations With Friends is a “nuanced page-turner.” In the Irish Times, Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright described Normal People as “superb,” a book that “grows up under your eyes: it is so much wiser and more moral than you thought it would be.”
So why are Rooney’s books resonating with a certain subset of twenty- and thirtysomething readers? Certainly at this moment there’s the churning perennial hype machine, and the fact that a young writer so fully formed has released two excellent books in short order is practically a wailing siren that she deserves attention. But perhaps the interest in Rooney’s writing also comes from the relevance of her laser-sharp focus, on the ethics and morals of attempting to have relationships and love in the time of late capitalism. As Lauren Collins writes in a New Yorker profile of Rooney in January, “In the hierarchy of Rooney’s literary identities, millennial is greater than Irish, but post-recessionary may be greater than millennial. Her writing emanates anxiety about capitalism … [she] is writing novels of manners about an era in which the expectation of caring for others no longer obtains, in which it’s easier to wreck a home than to own one.” In a moment when there’s been so much media focus on the emotional and financial precarity of being a millennial, Rooney appears to have captured the zeitgeist.
While literature can reflect the world as it is at this exact moment, there’s been a traditional squeamishness in fiction with writing about sex, technology, and how it relates to the present, and that has even extended to the millennial writers who are starting to make a name for themselves. Rooney’s facility with writing so naturally about sex and technology, her age (28), her accolades, and her novelty status (to Americans) as an Irish writer writing about Dublin, has given her work the sheen of authenticity. Rooney has been successful enough in Europe that googling “millennial author” results in a first-hit thinkpiece on her work in the Guardian.
But of course what it means to be millennial is complicated, barring the general mandate that it’s people born between 1981 and 1996. Nevertheless, Rooney’s books capture certain essential aspects of the millennial experience (albeit one that is white, lower middle class, and rooted in Ireland’s specific economic worries).
Conversations With Friends is a sharply observed novel about adultery, taking a hoary old form and turning it into something different. The book follows two university students, ex-girlfriends and spoken-word poetry performers Frances and Bobbi, as they fall in with a thirtysomething couple, successful essayist and photographer Melissa and handsome actor Nick. Frances and Nick start sleeping together, and the rhythms and power dynamics of all these relationships change and shift. What begins as a clever parrying between two wise-beyond-their-years college women and the older couple that finds them interesting and fresh develops into something like a love story, as Frances, queer and radical and bohemian, explores what she actually desires.
Normal People continues in those footsteps. It’s about a poor boy and a rich girl, Connell and Marianne, two high school students in small-town Ireland who fall into each other’s orbit. Rooney follows their electric charge through high school and their mutual college years at Trinity in Dublin, and the changes that come along with time: filled with love, hurt, and succor. It was published this past fall in Europe, where it’s already amassed a sizable collection of critical awards and accolades, including two longlists for the Man Booker and Dylan Thomas prizes.
Her characters make college look fun and intelligence easy, though they’re seemingly lacking in ambition. They don’t have concrete career goals, even as they worry about money, their art, their physical and mental health, and the future. It’s this attitude that makes the characters feel au courant. Marriage, a job, and a house aren’t necessarily in the cards, so they opt to try and find moments of transcendence instead, often through love and sex.
There are other, more superficial readings that make Rooney’s book so fashionably millennial as it refers to lower-middle-class twenty- and thirtysomethings. Rooney’s characters know how to live on the internet in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself; the way she writes IMs, emails, and texts is effortlessly familiar. Maris Kreizman, who covers books and culture for New York Magazine, said Rooney’s incorporation of digital communications “feels like a natural part of the story and it moves the plot forward in a way that not all that many people do with their use of the online world. Most of the dramatic things happen off the page.”
The millennial concerns in Rooney’s books feel specific to a generation in their twenties and thirties, learning about the first blush of love and sex and power in a world that’s radically different from the world of their parents. With the central driving factor of money and capitalism — instead of the previously ruling structure of Roman Catholicism, in Ireland — this world offers little chance for control after the great economic recession of 2008. It hit Ireland deeply with both a housing crash and an economic drop. Complete with a nickname — “the Celtic Tiger” — the boom years in the ’90s and 2000s was a time when it seemed as if this perennial underdog of a country would be its own economic center, attracting major tech companies with a low tax rate, and benefiting from the subsequent jobs. This boom was not to be with the recession, and this gave a gloomy outlook to a generation who grew up seeing the opportunities of a world that’s now over; this generation faces a future of likely floundering.
Rooney’s books explore different economics than the decades of Irish misery that took over the bookshelves (think Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes). Here, the characters aren’t wrestling with the weight of prejudice and white supremacy, or even the Catholic versus Protestant war of the Troubles that wracked Northern Ireland from the late ’60s into the ’90s (currently ridiculed on the excellent Netflix show Derry Girls). In Conversations With Friends and Normal People, the economics start by being in collegiate, idealistic terms; at one point in the former, Frances muses about her “ideologically healthy” disinterest in wealth, suggesting that the world would be better and more ethical if everyone had their piece of the gross world product, which comes to about $16,000. Despite this Marxist fantasy, the world remains realistic: characters whose parents clean houses or who are alcoholics are well-aware of the oblivious privilege of their friends who “come from money.”
In Conversations With Friends, Frances, suffering from the pain of undiagnosed endometriosis, stops receiving her meager allowance from her alcoholic father. She’s broke, hungry, and dependent on her relationships with Bobbi and Nick in order to get food. Meanwhile she’s hyperaware of how to behave: “I felt I had to act amused and glib about the food, because I thought Nick would be uncomfortable if he knew I really had no money and was living on the bread and jam he brought me.” She’s also, at that point, shocked when Bobbi refers to getting a job at a university in the future, “if I can.” In Frances’s eyes, Bobbi can do anything, like taking down global capitalism.
Normal People has Marianne falling in with a rich crowd at Trinity, the sort of kids who will end up running Ireland in the future, who call Connell, their intellectual equal, a “culchie,” or a hick. When Marianne and Connell both win an academic scholarship that will pay for the rest of college and a master’s, it leads to frank talk about their different class backgrounds, how Connell’s mother cleaned Marianne’s house, and how Marianne can say that she thinks “meritocracy is evil,” while participating — along with an uncomfortable Connell — in high-level college events where her peers are serving her food.
Reading books about characters who want something, who learn how to express their desires and hungers throughout the course of growing up, is an irresistible trope of the coming-of-age novel. Rooney’s central characters, who nearly feel like old friends — Frances, Marianne, and Connell — chase pleasure, deny pleasure, and then learn what pleasure yields in modern times. Desire gives her writing its urgency, with the added bonuses coming from an accurate internet voice that feels new in fiction and the beautifully jaundiced perspective of a generation that doesn’t expect the world to come to them. However, these features — like disillusionment and weird strange ways of talking — are not necessarily germane to millennials: They come up again and again when generations are able to tell their own stories. It’s not too different from the disaffected slackers of Generation X, and when we hear from the teens currently protesting climate change, they too are likely to be looking for something good in a world that’s terrifying.
So far, it feels as if Rooney’s two books are in conversation with each other, with the repeated refrain of wondering what it would be like to be a “normal” person — which the author has also wondered aloud in interviews. That question, or the question of how to find out what it is to be a normal person, a person who finds some mercy, kindness, and purpose in a world where the chips are stacked against you, no matter where you start and where you end up, seems to be at the heart of Rooney’s social observations and conversations.
Her characters, in their search for love, end up with something like grace. And the opportunity for grace, normal or otherwise, can feel like absolution in an often cruel world. It’s a desire common to everybody, and whether it means that there’s a “great millennial novelist” in our midst is nearly irrelevant: The fact is that Sally Rooney is a perceptive writer with keen insight into human behavior — and she’s just getting started. ●
Elisabeth Donnelly is a journalist and screenwriter. She has written about books, culture, and other passions for numerous places from Oprah to Topic Magazine to New York City Ballet. You can find her writing at elisabethdonnelly.com. She’s currently working on a nonfiction book about wellness.