Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, published in 2017, has been one of the great literary success stories of the Brexit and Trump eras, especially among readers who, like her main characters, are in their teens and twenties. Its popularity owes much to how incisively Rooney has updated the coming-of-age novel, or bildungsroman, for the current moment, when late, late capitalism finds itself entering a twilight phase.
In its classic form, the bildungsroman tied its protagonists’ dramas to questions of class status: Will Jane Eyre live in sin or marry and inherit a fortune? Will David Copperfield acquire a profession? Will the hero of Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education become a revolutionary or a lawyer? Typically, the protagonists of nineteenth-century coming-of-age novels join the bourgeoisie, but that choice is less important than the fact that they have one to make at all. The coming-of-age novel itself came of age alongside capitalism, at a moment when white people with the money and time to write and read novels found it easy to imagine white people from all classes ending up on the winning side of life.
As capitalism changed, so did the bildungsroman. Rooney’s publications to date, which have coincided with the Great Recession and a rapidly shrinking middle class, offer good case studies of this change. What happens to coming-of-age tales when young people who have been assigned little value beyond their capacity for labor no longer have any labor to perform? And how have changes to capitalism affected how the bildungsroman treats one of its key themes: generational conflict?
Answering these questions requires taking a detour through the twentieth century via a comparison between Rooney’s work and another classic coming-of-age tale published a little over sixty years ago: Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan. Though marketers in the US were quick to dub Conversations with Friends the new The Catcher in the Rye, and Rooney a “Salinger for the Snapchat generation,” Rooney, who was born in 1991, is an Irish citizen, which makes her a European writer, whose influences include Colette, Marcel Proust, and Françoise Sagan.
Bonjour Tristesse, Sagan’s own debut novel, offers a far better comparison point than Catcher in the Rye for understanding how Rooney’s and Sagan’s novels address the effect of capitalism’s shifting fortunes on the coming-of-age novel. Both works focus on a few weeks or months that permanently transform their main characters. Both portray characters struggling to understand what they owe themselves and others. And both feature first-person female narrators who tell their tales at some remove from the events they recount. “That summer, I was seventeen and perfectly happy,” Sagan’s protagonist, Cécile, tells us on the first page. Though more of a malcontent, Rooney’s narrator, twenty-one-year-old Frances, a writer and university student, signals a similar distance between herself and the younger Frances, whose story she tells when she remarks, “I was always thinking about rich people then.”
Published in 1954, when Sagan was eighteen years old, Bonjour Tristesse scandalized readers by presenting seventeen-year-old Cécile as her libertine father’s accomplice. During a Côte d’Azur vacation, he leaves her free to have sex with her boyfriend, Cyril, while he dallies with his somewhat vulgar lover, Elsa. Soon, though, we’re introduced to Anne, the older, more intelligent, and more sophisticated woman for whom (in a surprising plot twist) Cécile’s father unceremoniously dumps his younger girlfriend.
Bonjour Tristesse shifts from vacation idyll to high drama when Anne, now engaged to marry Cécile’s father, tries to force her soon-to-be stepdaughter to study for exams and locks her in her room to keep her from having sex with Cyril. Cécile retaliates by convincing Cyril and Elsa to pose as lovers, guessing correctly that this will provoke her father into seducing Elsa once again. What Cécile does not anticipate is that Anne will witness her fiancé having sex with his former lover and then drive herself off a cliff to her death.
The guilt that Cécile experiences as a result of her all-too-successful machinations permanently tinges her carefree life with the sadness heralded by the book’s title. We never do learn whether Cécile passes her exams or marries, only that she and her father quickly distract themselves with new affairs. But the novel ends with Cécile reflecting on the damage she inflicted on her stepmother and on herself. For Cécile, maturity comes with understanding that other people have feelings—and that hers are intimately bound up in theirs.
Conversations with Friends features Frances; Bobbi, her ex-girlfriend, now best friend, also a student; Melissa, a photographer and writer whom the younger women admire; and Melissa’s husband, Nick, also in his thirties, a handsome but not very successful actor, with whom Frances has a secretive on-again, off-again affair. After Bobbi and then Melissa learn that Frances and Nick have been having sex, accusations get leveled and relationships reorganized.
For most of the novel, Frances seems cut off from both her own emotions and those of others. “I didn’t know how much I was allowed to feel about it, or how much of what I felt at the time I was still allowed to feel in retrospect,” says Frances, reflecting on a medical incident that she thought might be a miscarriage. She connects best either with abstract words and ideas or with the visceral sensations of sex and pain. She is incurious about Nick’s experience with depression or Bobbi’s distress over her parents’ divorce; she has trouble telling anyone about her endometriosis diagnosis. Twice, after upsetting conversations with Nick that go badly in part because Frances cannot communicate how she feels, she cuts herself.
Like Cécile, Frances must learn to engage both with her own interiority and that of others. Conversations with Friends equates maturity with learning how to share pain. The novel’s final scene, a conversation between Frances and Nick, suggests that she has finally begun to see him not as a barometer of her own value, but as someone with his own problems, and someone with whom she can (even must) share what most scares and disgusts her about herself.
In both novels, the prospect of understanding the lives of others is particularly fraught when it takes place across age cohorts: the older people either find it difficult to understand the younger people’s desires or else feed off them; the younger people have trouble seeing their elders as human beings in their own right. But the emotional resources the characters bring to their generational conflicts depend to a surprising degree on their economic resources.
Sagan’s novel is set during the post–World War II economic boom, which seemed to promise unlimited growth and offset the depredations of capitalism with generous social welfare programs. Money flows as freely in Sagan’s universe as gasoline into her characters’ cars. Jobs are something her younger characters can take or leave. Cécile worries very little about future employment, and when Cyril decides to give up his legal studies, he imagines himself easily getting a job in his uncle’s line of work.
Bonjour Tristesse is about the euphoria of adolescents so confident in their economic futures that they can judge adults on one metric alone: how likely they are to let young people frolic. As a white woman living in prosperous postwar France, Cécile can plausibly imagine that, liberated from her censorious stepmother’s surveillance, she will have full access to the pleasures of adulthood while remaining free of its constraints. To be sure, much of this is enabled by the fact that she is rich. In 2019, when jobs are scarce, college debt high, and growth stagnant, her wealth alone would repel most readers. But in the 1950s, a mass audience identified with the heroine, focusing above all on the scene where she loses her virginity and feels only pleasure, unburdened by shame or remorse.
Once upon a time, hundreds of thousands of readers actually cared whether a wealthy young woman would get to keep having sex on the beach instead of having to read Henri Bergson for her college exams. The message that the novel’s readers took away was not the moral one imparted by its conclusion: that forcing others to pay for one’s pleasures comes at a great cost. Rather, it was the lesson conveyed by the sex scenes between the youthful protagonists: that pleasure can and should be limitless and free of consequences.
In contrast, Conversations with Friends acidly depicts the dysphoria of growing up in an age when the grown-ups seem to have cornered the market on fun. Nick has a gym membership; Melissa, thanks to an even older and richer friend, has access to a huge vacation house in France. Much of Melissa and Nick’s marriage revolves around shopping for expensive groceries. Because they do not have children, they seem even freer than most people in their thirties to enjoy their wealth and indulge themselves. Meanwhile, Frances does not have enough money even to buy food—until Nick comes to the rescue with two hundred euros.
The generational conflicts in Conversations are shaped by the fact that Frances lives in a world where elders either cannot or will not share their wealth with the younger generation. Where Sagan depicts a father and daughter sharing pleasures, Frances pays dearly for her alcoholic father’s fecklessness, and Nick and Melissa seem to monopolize the economic security that makes possible a life devoted to pleasure, art, and self-care. Frances claims to have no plans for getting a job and sees no reason ever to get paid more than $16,100 a year, the amount of the gross world product divided equally among everyone. But her apathy and altruism seem like defenses against disappointment, given how few people her age manage to get any job at all. As she puts it, “I certainly never fantasized about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role.”
The young people would like the professionally successful and materially comfortable lives that the older people have. They have resigned themselves to never obtaining those comforts, except through personal connections. It is thanks to Melissa’s friend Valerie that Frances receives over eight hundred euros for her first published story. When Melissa accuses Frances of sleeping with Nick because she disdains their bourgeois home, Frances replies: “I didn’t feel any contempt for your house. I wanted it to be my house. I wanted your whole life…. I wasn’t trying to trash your life, I was trying to steal it.”
Earlier, Frances has a long exchange with Nick about his beautiful gray cashmere coat with a blue silk lining: “I got out of bed and slipped my naked arms through the sleeves, feeling the cool silk run over my skin. The pockets were heavy with personal items: his phone and wallet, his keys. I weighed them in my hands like they were mine.” Nick exits the bathroom, sees her wearing this symbol of his comfortable life, and laughs.
You’re not keeping it, he said.
I like it.
Unfortunately, I like it too.
In a world of scarce resources, only one person can enjoy the soft, warm coat. The conflicts Nick and Frances have over their affair are as much about what it means to grow up in an era that offers young people few prospects for upward mobility as it is about his commitment to his marriage. She despairs not only about whether he will ever leave his wife but also about everything he enjoys that she believes she never will.
Sagan grew up in a wealthy family and became even richer from her first novel’s spectacular sales. She spent the rest of her life living out a credo not incompatible with her first book’s message: be irresponsible with possessions, but not with people. She gambled, had car accidents, took political stands, gave large sums of money to friends. She loved writing because in a materialistic society that demanded that everything serve a purpose, literature dared to be good for nothing.
That notion of literature, like so many things about the era in which Sagan grew up, now seems a rare luxury. Rooney, not born into wealth, has positioned herself as the voice of a generation dispossessed by its elders and by history. The more successful she becomes, the more distant she will be from the material conditions her early work describes. It will be interesting to see how she handles that. Like Rooney’s characters, I read the internet. It tells me that her third novel, currently in progress, will be about aesthetics and political crisis.