short story reviews: Mr Salary & Color and Light by Sally Rooney

MR SALARY by Sally Rooney              |    COLOR AND LIGHT by Sally Rooney
★★★★★ |    ★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2019    |    The New Yorker, 2019

I want to first say that if you don’t quite ‘get’ the Sally Rooney craze, I don’t blame you – is she really achieving something that other authors are failing to do, or does her writing offer a comfortable familiarity; does her work hold universal appeal or is it uniquely resonant with young people; no one seems to have a very clear answer on any of this – but that said, I think her writing is magic. Normal People took me entirely by surprise, Conversations With Friends is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in years, and now these two short stories have solidified her place as one of my absolute favorite authors.

The thing about Sally Rooney is that while her storytelling is incisive and forthright, she always leaves me wanting more – not in the sense that what she offers is lacking, but in the sense that you can instinctively discern that Rooney understands her characters inside and out, backwards and forwards; they feel like living, breathing entities who continue to exist once you’ve ceased reading.  Rooney writes about people I want to know – not in real life, necessarily, although realism is arguably the great strength of her character work – but all of her characters come to life under her perceptive gaze and she excels both at chronicling the internal and the interpersonal.

While both of her novels beautifully showcase her prowess at character development, these two short stories prove that she still has a lot to offer in just a few short pages.   Color and Light follows a young hotel receptionist Aidan who meets an enigmatic screenwriter named Pauline that he becomes drawn to.  Mr Salary is told from the perspective of a 24-year-old woman named Sukie, who’s in love with a 30-something man named Nathan, a family friend that she’s lived with for years.  Both stories are brief snapshot pieces – we get a bit of background, but we don’t learn these characters’ life stories, nor do we need to.  Each story crackles with sexual tension, although it would be dismissive to reduce them to this one element – Mr Salary is noteworthy for its macabre undertones, as Sukie’s obsession with death mirrors her sexual obsession with Nathan, and Color and Light probably has less of a straightforward romantic trajectory than anything else Rooney has written.  The inevitable romance between Aidan and Pauline isn’t really inevitable at all, as it develops – Aidan’s interest in Pauline isn’t sexual as much as driven by a desire to understand and be understood, a theme that underpins all of Rooney’s work.

If you like stories about flawed, lonely, emotionally distant people, told with honesty and lively, absorbing prose, I’d implore you to give into the Rooney hype.  Everything she writes somehow moves me, saddens me, and delights me all at once.  I will say, I’ve noticed a sort of divide between people who loved Conversations With Friends and found Normal People underwhelming and vice versa (personally, I just love it all), but if you do fall into this dichotomy, I’d recommend Mr Salary to those who preferred Conversations With Friends and Color and Light to those who preferred Normal People.

Read Color and Light on the New Yorker website here, and pick up a copy of Mr Salary from Book Depository here.

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book review: Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

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CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sally Rooney
★★★★★
Hogarth, 2017

 

This was stupidly good. After recently loving Rooney’s sophomore novel Normal People my expectations for Conversations With Friends were high, though I was also a bit wary; in these situations I’m always afraid an author’s debut isn’t going to live up. I needn’t have worried. This was perfect from start to finish. You know that feeling when you miss a stair and your stomach lurches briefly before you land – this was that sensation in book form.

Once again I was impressed with Rooney’s writing; it’s simple and seemingly effortless, but the kind of natural and conversational cadence she achieves is no easy feat. The simultaneous intelligence and lack of life experience of the narrator, Frances, were captured so convincingly; from the start this was a person that I wanted to understand, whose head I wanted to inhabit briefly. Sally Rooney writes about interpersonal dynamics with such skill and ease and sharp observation, and that was the shining point of this novel, but whenever Frances looked inward, those moments were also captured with the same unnerving clarity. I related to Frances and I didn’t; I saw bits of myself in her and I found bits of her unreachable. But Rooney made me care, she earned my investment as I watched with sympathy and frustration and anxiety as Frances attempted to navigate an awkward, ill-thought-out affair with an older married man, a dynamic which only complicated her limited understanding of love, class, status, artistic freedom, and belonging.

If you can’t handle books about unlikable, selfish people, you aren’t going to enjoy this, and in that sense alone I don’t necessarily believe this book transcends its premise. It’s about unlikable, selfish people, many of whom are blind to their privilege. It’s not about the kind of people you want to be, or want to be friends with. But if you’re willing to sacrifice likability for realism, and an unpredictable plot for moments of startling self-reflection, this is the book for you. I actually ended up preferring this to Normal People, but both are a solid 5 stars and I am simply delighted that Sally Rooney’s books have entered my life.

book review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney
★★★★★
Faber & Faber (UK)

 

Engrossing, complex, and emotionally honest, Normal People is an understated powerhouse of a novel. As this book ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts it’s particularly difficult to summarize, but basically, it’s a sort-of-love-story about Connell and Marianne, two young people growing up in small town Ireland together, who both move to Dublin for university in 2011.

There isn’t much going on in this book aside from Connell and Marianne’s ‘will they/won’t they’ relationship, but I wouldn’t describe this as a romance novel as much as a novel about being human. Sally Rooney highlights with razor-sharp precision the oddities and intricacies that complicate interpersonal interactions, even between two people who love one another. This book is about miscommunication, but not miscommunication as a plot device; miscommunication as an intrinsic part of the human experience, naturally calling into question the possibility of truly knowing another person. Connell and Marianne’s inability to open up to one another is so much bigger than these two individual characters; it’s about gender roles and socioeconomic differences and power dynamics and social status and preconceived notions and projections and misinterpretations, and Rooney examines it all minutely through the lens of this one ill-fated sort-of-couple. She also has the uncanny ability to cut to the emotional core of a scene without sensationalizing, and I think that’s what strikes me as the most accomplished element of this novel.

I think this book is inevitably going to be underestimated by some because of its premise, and because of all the hyperbolic claims that Rooney is the definitive voice of her generation. But it’s a deceptively clever book; it’s perceptive where it could easily be vapid, it’s clear-eyed where it could be melodramatic, and it has more intellectual and emotional depth than anything else I’ve read recently. A bit of an unconventional choice for the Booker longlist, but it fully earned its spot in my opinion, and I’d love to see it shortlisted.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman | Everything Under
In Our Mad and Furious City | Warlight