book review: Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey



Knopf, January 2020


In a way I feel a bit bad contributing to this book’s overwhelmingly negative reception, because I do think it has more going for it than its low Goodreads rating might suggest, and I can see where others could get something out of it.  But at the same time, this did literally nothing for me, so here we are.

The Rachel Cusk comparisons are a dime a dozen, and I will spare you from that seeing as I’ve never read Rachel Cusk; I will instead address the Sally Rooney comparisons.  Both authors interrogate themes on womanhood, sex, sexuality, and give voice to a subset of young women who may have never seen these topics addressed so starkly in fiction.  But for me the difference between these two authors lies in the fact that Rooney explores themes through character, and Popkey explores themes at the expense of character.  The aptly unnamed narrator of Topics of Conversation feels like a prototype of Generic Young Woman Angst – maybe that’s the point, maybe not – but her struggles all felt very Grand and Societal without being grounded in the microcosm enough to hold my interest.  Basically: this is a book of commentary and ideas, and that’s not an inherently bad or valueless thing; I just failed to engage with it.

Anyway, the thing that actually grated on me more than anything was Popkey’s writing.  This book is largely told in chunks of dialogue; characters relaying monologues to the narrator.  I found that Popkey attempted to imitate the features of verbal speech in a way that came across to me as forced and labored; it was peak stylized MFA-prose.   “Her hair was down and her cheeks were stiff and pink from smiling and the freckles on her neck, down her forearms, dotting her ankles, they were shining, they were giving off some kind of heat, she was glowing.”

Again, I don’t think this was a bad book, and if it interests you, I’d definitely encourage you to pick it up; it just wasn’t what I was looking for and I found it rather unremarkable at the end of the day.

You can pick up a copy of Topics of Conversation here on Book Depository.

18 thoughts on “book review: Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

    • I initially had it on my Women’s Prize predictions list, but after reading it I was like… no? I don’t see how anyone could aggressively fight for this book? It’s just so mediocre at every turn. What a missed opportunity.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That’s a very good review, and gave me a great idea of what to expect from this book! I think it wouldn’t really work for me (I was bored with that one sentence you quoted already), but negative or lukewarm reviews are so helpful! Also I love your writing style. I’ve never used the word “microcosm” in my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!! LOL ‘microcosm’ is one of those obnoxious words that I’ve retained from my college essay vocabulary 😂 (see also: ‘societal construct’.)

      I really hope this does not make the WP!!


  2. Ah, I love your Rooney vs. Popkey comparison! I picked this one up largely for the suggested similarities and did not find what I was looking for with this book. Though I appreciated the themes, the author’s storytelling did not work for me at all. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Omg I would have loved that. I don’t know who he is but I LOVE hearing bitching about MFAs!! (Part of this may be reassuring myself it was the right decision not to do one, full disclosure/admitting it to myself!)

        Liked by 1 person

      • You don’t have a Twitter, do you? (I feel like I’ve asked you this?) He’s huge on literary twitter and just published his debut Real Life, which is ostensibly what the event was about, but the Iowa shit-talking was absolutely the highlight

        And god, same!!! I never did any sort of MA and honestly it’s a decision I feel great about. I feel like most MA programs aren’t as toxic and terrible as MFAs but still… I’m doing just fine without putting myself in all that debt.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ugh I’ve dropped out of not one, but TWO MAs. I just don’t like being in school that much and I don’t feel enthusiastic about any profession enough to commit to an MA. After I’ve already started them, that is! They just seemed like the best options at the time when I was floundering about what to do (and also needed a visa). So learn from my mistake and definitely do not do unless you really, really care. And agreed, they’re nowhere near as toxic (great word for it!) as MFA programs but I still always wonder if everything would be different if I’d have gone that route. It makes me feel better to hear more about the toxicity around it, because seriously, do not need.

        And no Twitter for me. I had one a million years ago when it first came out but I’m not really succinct enough for it (obviously) and now it terrifies me, it just seems like there’s SO much bullying!!! I do instagram because I like taking and seeing pretty pictures and besides goodreads that’s pretty much end of list for my social media efforts.


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