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Conversations With Friends was Sally Rooney’s debut novel published in 2017. Set in Ireland, the story follows the closely-knit and complicated relationships of Frances and Bobbi, who are both university students in their early 20s, and Melissa and Nick, a married couple in their early 30s. With these two couples, Rooney already offers up a millennial mirror with which each side—Frances and Bobbie/Melissa and Nick—can study the other. The intermingling of these lives, loves, and bank accounts proffer a fascinating look at finance, capitalism, and money in the 21st century. Arguably, readers have not seen this level of socioeconomic discussion in literature since the likes of the Romantic/Victorian era with authors like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Gaskell centring narratives on social and financial independence. Conversations With Friends is, therefore, an extremely interesting lens we can use to think about the financial highs and lows of the youth today.
“Speak for yourself, I said. I’m never going to get a job” (18).
Frances says this to her friend Philip as they discuss their internship at the publishing company they are both working at. Frances’ stance on employment goes against the traditional notions of capitalism and consumerism: accumulation of wealth at all costs and the only way someone is useful is through the steady accumulation of wealth. The idea of Frances never getting a job completely subverts the values we have in Western societies. Just ask anyone who has ever been unemployed and the first response you will hear is how ‘worthless’ they feel.
Frances goes on further to say that she has “no plans” for her “future financial sustainability” (23). Frances doesn’t ignore the fact that she will have to earn some sort of money to stay alive, but she “never wanted to earn money for doing anything” (23). She also “never fantasised about a radiant future where [she] was paid to perform an economic role” (23). So what does this say about notions of wealth and prosperity today? Before answering that, I think it is important to touch on Frances general economic status in the novel and talk about how her economic privileges shape this anti-capitalist/consumerist stance she has.
Frances spends a lot of time in the novel without any cash. On the surface, it can be easy to sympathise with her plight and I often found myself thinking that Frances struggled a lot economically. Although, whilst Frances struggles in the novel, she is far from poor or without economic privilege. Her parents give her an allowance while she studies at university, but her father is not reliable with these payments. His abuse of alcohol and poor mental health seem to contribute to his unreliability. When she hits financial rock bottom, she actually borrows 200 Euro off Nick. Nick also gives her food and presents when he visits her. The male provider role doesn’t go unnoticed by Frances and it is interesting that Frances struggles with asking for money and also receiving money/assistance from a man, including her father. Yet, I would also argue that Frances’ poverty is still a privileged one. Her uncle lets her stay in a flat in the city so she can have easy access to university as well as maintain independence. The relationship Frances has with her uncle and his access to property is a kind of financial privilege that divides young people today. Having access to affordable/free housing in cities is something only available to the rich or to those with property connections. The older generations have bought the youth out of geographical stability. When Philip says, “This is how privilege gets perpetuated, […] Rich assholes like use taking unpaid internships and getting jobs off the back of them” (18), one could argue that he was talking about a lot more than just jobs. The very fact that Frances can show “disinterest in wealth” shows how privileged she really is (23).
Bobbi, on the other hand, is repeatedly described throughout the novel as rich and from a wealthy background. In contrast to Frances’ (lower) middle-class upbringing, Bobbi has a lot more options open to her. Bobbi for most of the novel lives at home with her parents, which is also both a privileged and frustrating position as living at home often implies rent free, always filled refrigerator lifestyle. Frances’ unease around Bobbi’s, Melissa’s, and Nick’s wealth is also a reflection on the failure of the middle-class dream of economic stability and freedom.
There is a lot of direct and indirect talk about privilege and wealth in the novel. What I find extremely interesting about the novel is that whilst some of the notions like the explosion real estate capital are something we have not seen in the past, there are still universal tropes that define wealth and poverty. Looking rich, having a certain type of accent, having holiday homes, old money vs. new money, marrying for money, and the rich helping the rich all appear throughout Rooney’s novel and are arguably all the things that have appeared and reappeared as markers of wealth and poverty for centuries. So where does our renewed fascination with money come from? When I went to see John Lanchester, author of Capital, speak in Zurich a few years back he talked about something his father said to him. Paraphrased, he said that his father asked him if he thought a lot about money to which Lanchester replied, he did not think about money. His father said to him, if you are not thinking about money, that is how you know it isn’t a problem for you. This is a long way of saying that the meaning of money, wealth, and prosperity is changing. Millennials have inherited a very different world to that of the baby boomers. Post-WWII prosperity which saw exponential growth in capital, wealth, and economic/social freedom has not been able to maintain the same pace. Our environment is crumbling, our governments are making access to education and healthcare harder and harder to access (which are arguably the two main ways that people are able to get out of poverty), we cannot afford houses unless you have economically stable parents who will either pay for your deposit or let you live rent-free at home till you can afford something, and the list goes on and on. The economic pillars with which held up our futures no longer apply to today’s society. So in the words of Lanchester, we are talking about money, because it is a problem.
Lastly, I want to touch on Rooney’s discussions about capitalism and love. Love and marriage as an exchange for wealth and financial security are usually topics found in a Jane Austen novel, yet we also see these themes come up in Conversations With Friends. Bobbi suggests that love and romantic relations both serve and undermine capitalism “in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness, which dictates the whole logic of inequality, and yet also it’s subservient and facilitatory” (180). What Bobbi touches on here is unpaid labour, which usually falls to women, in exchange for economic stability. This can also be seen when Melissa is talking to Frances about getting her “a nice older girlfriend. […] Someone with a lot of money” (203).
Rooney’s discussions of capitalism, consumerism, and wealth are not a random occurrence in contemporary literature. This is a reoccurring theme that I see in many novels and I would argue that it is something we will be seeing more of in the future. Society no matter what political side of the divide you sit on is changing. The once comfortable middle class looks like it could become the ‘nouveau pauvre’ and who knows, we might not even have a world to worry about any of it because we will be either on fire or under water.
The assumption that young people today are not thinking constantly about money is a farce, at best. We are constantly talking about money and you do not have to look very far to see it, or read it. What books are you reading that are making you think more about our current financial situations? As always, share the reading love.