Book Review: Conversations with Friends

I finally read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney! This book was on my TBR ever since reading Normal People in June. Conversations with Friends is the story a young student/poet, Frances, who is discovered by an older and more prominent writer named Melissa. Frances (and her best friend and co-performer, Bobbi) start spending more time with Melissa, and Frances finds herself increasingly captivated by Melissa’s husband Nick. As Frances and Nick become closer, Frances’ relationships – with her friends, family, and Nick – begin to spin out of control.

The book: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

This novel was so captivating! I am not sure whether to say that I consumed it, or it consumed me. But I finished the book in less than 24 hours because the plot was intriguing and suspenseful. Which is really impressive for a non-mystery-or-thriller novel. What made the book so captivating was simply the main character’s emotional complexity and personal struggle. I couldn’t put this book down, because I wanted to see how or if Frances would resolve her personal issues.

I was surprised that Conversations with Friends pulled me in so deeply, because the narrator and main character (Frances) is kind of unlikable. Frances is self-conscious to the point of being excessively self-centered, and she frequently engages in impulsive, selfish behavior that has the potential to hurt others. She also struggles to apologize for her harmful actions, and instead waits for the people that she has hurt to apologize to her. Yet reading her story, it is clear that Frances isn’t hopeless: she has the potential to learn, grow, and change. This is part of what compelled so deeply about this novel: I was rooting for Frances to change.

While the narrator and main character (Frances) was certainly challenging at times, she wasn’t the only difficult character in Conversations with Friends. Most of the major characters in this novel had blatantly unlikeable qualities. At the same time, though, all the characters are so well-developed that the root of their challenging behaviors becomes clear. This isn’t to say that psychology is an excuse for morally questionable actions – just that the characters in Conversations with Friends are realistically complex.

Another aspect of Conversations with Friends that was realistic yet frustrating was the bad communication between characters! So many of the issues in this book – particularly Frances’ issues – could have been resolved with better communication. I think this was very intentional on author Sally Rooney’s part, and that it’s meant to highlight the importance of good communication in a healthy relationship.

All in all, I loved Conversations with Friends. The book is frustrating, heartbreaking, and above all – deeply compelling. If you like stories with *slightly* unlikeable or emotionally complicated main characters, I definitely recommend this book.

Normal People (and better-than-normal boozy, caffeinated milkshakes)

The book: Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Even though the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction has been announced, I am still reading some of the long-listed books. Most recently, I read Normal People by Sally Rooney. Normal People is the story of two young adults, Marianne and Connell, who share an intimate but secret relationship in high-school, and are never quite able to let each other go.

Normal People is a novel that is driven by its characters. The characters are complex, heartbreaking, and frustrating – or, in other words, painfully realistic. The most frustrating and heartbreaking character is Marianne, who deals with her internalized pain by entering into risky relationships. Watching her make one harmful decision after another was so painful, but I had to keep rooting for her and reading to see if she would recognize or address the deeper issues.

Also heartbreaking and frustrating to read were the tensions that arose between Marianne and Connell, because they could have been resolved so easily with just slightly better communication. In fact, the theme of communication comes up repeatedly throughout Normal People. From Connell and Marianne becoming closer each time one of them shares deeply personal information, to their completely unnecessary fights over perceived intentions, Normal People shows the importance of good communication in a healthy relationship.

Normal People also provides a lot of commentary on relationships and dependence. Throughout the novel, I questioned the healthiness of the various relationships that were depicted. Some of the relationships are clearly unhealthy, while others are more ambiguous. Ultimately, I think this novel shows that no relationship is perfect, and that the timing of a relationship plays a major role in whether it will work: two people can be wrong for each other at certain points in their life, but still have a healthy relationship later on, and vice versa.

Normal People is a completely engrossing read, and it can easily be binged in a single-day. Parts of this novel are heartbreaking, yet the story is so compelling and addictive. The only times I put this book down were to process the emotions that it made me feel (and also sometimes to cry, because it really made me feel things).

The bake*: boozy hazelnut latte milkshakes

*this recipe does not actually involve baking

Two foods that appear throughout Normal People are coffee and alcohol. Because of this, I decided to make something that would incorporate both. And because I’m apparently going through a milkshake phase right now, I decided to incorporate them in the form of a spiked hazelnut latte milkshake.

I didn’t follow a recipe for this milkshake; I kind of just experimented until I liked the taste and consistency. Here are the ingredients I ended up using (to make two small-ish servings):

  • 1 cup vanilla ice cream
  • 1/2 cup oat milk
  • 1 teaspoon espresso powder
  • ~2 tablespoons hazelnut liquer (optional)
  • Pinch of cinnamon

After that I topped with whipped cream and espresso powder, mostly for aesthetic purposes. The milkshake had a great hazelnut-coffee flavor, and I honestly couldn’t taste the alcohol in it (which could be good, or dangerous, or both). I guess you could say it tasted…normal! Just kidding! It is better than normal 🙂

An American Marriage (plus, the blackberry jam cake from Celestial and Roy’s rehearsal dinner)

The book: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Last week, I read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. An American Marriage tells the story of Celestial and Roy, a newlywed couple whose marriage is put to the test when Roy is sentenced to thirteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The novel shows the effects of Roy’s incarceration on the relationship from the perspective of three characters: Roy, Celestial, and Celestial’s childhood friend Andre.

The chapters of An American Marriage are alternatingly told from the perspectives of each of the three main characters. This technique only works when characters are well-developed, and in An American Marriage they absolutely were. The different perspectives allowed me to gain a more nuanced understanding of situations and relationships, and (usually) to empathize better with each character. I say that the differing perspectives usually elicited empathy, because there were some passages written from Roy’s perspective that made my blood boil. Celestial and Andre often omit or sugarcoat Roy’s undesirable characteristics (egotism and entitlement, to name a couple), so reading chapters from his perspective made me like him much less than I would have if his perspective hadn’t been written at all. But this makes the story more complete, more realistic.

An American Marriage illustrates many contemporary societal issues, and is probably meant to encourage discussion of those issues. With the plot revolving around the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent black man, racism of course plays a major role in the novel. Maybe even more prominent than racism in America, however, is the issue of toxic masculinity. Many of my frustrations with Roy are the result of his outdated ideas about gender roles in relationships. Roy is not solely to blame for his sexist views, however, because these ideas are clearly pervasive in the community where he grew up.

In addition to addressing pertinent social issues, An American Marriage also brings up philosophical questions about relationships and marriage. This novel left me broadly considering the institution of marriage, and what it means to commit to another person forever in a rapidly changing world. I have also been questioning whether Celestial and Roy’s relationship was destroyed by Roy’s imprisonment, or if it was simply a bad relationship that would have failed regardless.

Overall, An American Marriage was an incredible read and I highly recommend it. Parts of the plot might make your blood boil, but that speaks to the book’s ability to pull you in!

The bake: blackberry jam cake.

All my previous bakes have been loosely inspired by books, but this bake comes pretty directly from An American Marriage. At Celestial’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner, her mother Gloria makes a blackberry jam cake with “the aroma of rum, cloves, and cinnamon.” This blackberry jam cake is so special that not only did Celestial’s husband Roy request it as his groom’s cake, but it also played a role in Gloria’s courtship of Celestial’s father!

I followed this recipe for blackberry jam cake (omitting the golden raisins), and frosted it using this white chocolate frosting. Something to note about the cake recipe is that the bake time is pretty long, which may be the result of the jam in the batter. Also, because of the various textures in this cake (i.e. the chopped walnut chunks), it is a bit tricky to get a smooth frosting coat over it. Other than that, it is a straightforward cake.

I had been thinking about decorating the cake with walnuts and blackberries, as I recently adopted the philosophy that cake decorations should be reflective of what’s inside the cake. Unfortunately, I forgot to buy fresh blackberries this weekend, so I ended up decorating the cake only with walnuts.

This cake is very good: the jam keeps it moist, the spices give it a complex flavor, and the walnuts add more texture. I had a hard time picking up the blackberry flavor – the cake tasted like a sweet spice cake to me – but I still like it. In all of its complexity, this is the perfect cake to represent An American Marriage.

(a raspberry mocha cake that isn’t) Hard to Love

The book: Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper.

I am currently going through a non-fiction phase, and Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper was the first book I read as part of this phase. Hard to Love is a compilation of essays, each of which tackles the topic of love in its various forms. Hopper writes about friendships, sisterhood, and the ways in which these bonds can form.

Hard to Love is a joy to read because Briallen Hopper is an exceptional writer. She is able to articulate her perspectives so well that, by the end of the book, I almost felt as though I knew her. Because Hopper expresses her points of view so eloquently, it is easy to empathize with her. Even when I didn’t necessarily agree with Hopper, I was able to consider new perspectives with so much more compassion. For example, in the chapter “Hoarding,” Hopper defends the practice of hoarding as a means of remembering others by holding on to their physical possessions. I doubt I’ll ever be pro-hoarding, but after reading this essay I no longer feel much negative judgment toward those who do hoard.

In addition to being beautifully written, Hard to Love is refreshing. Our society places so much value on romantic love that other types of love are often-overlooked, despite being equally (if not more) important. In “Lean On,” Hopper argues that it is okay to be dependent on friendships, explaining how she “learned to practice mutual, broadly distributed leaning: to depend on care that was neither compulsory nor conditional” with her friends. In “Young Adult Cancer Story” and “Coasting,” she writes about being part of a close-knit friend-group that formed over a mutual friend’s cancer diagnosis. In “Dear Octopus” and “On Sisters,” she discusses how familial relationships are complex, yet “sustain [themselves] through things that can end or prevent intimate friendships.”

All Hopper’s essays are thoughtful and gorgeously written, but my personal favorites were “Lean On” and “Tending My Oven,” probably because both instantly resonated with me. I loved “Lean On,” because it perfectly expressed my own love for constructing and maintaining meaningful “friendship shells” and “structures of togetherness” with others. “Tending My Oven,” an exploration of why people bake, at times felt like it was written for me (I know that it wasn’t): in this essay, Hopper explains how baking can both “[allow us] to be warm and sweet in a world that so often isn’t, and provide “a space of authenticity and generosity.” These were the chapters that resonated with me the most, but let me reiterate that all of Hopper’s essays are wonderful – even her ideas that don’t resonate with everyone are very thoughtfully written.

By the way, you can read the essay “Lean On” on Longreads!

The bake: (four-layer) raspberry mocha cake

As I mentioned above, Hopper’s essay “Tending My Oven” – an exploration of the practice of baking – strongly resonated with me. In addition to examining the reasons why some people love to bake, Hopper writes about her own favorite things to bake (which include apple bundt cake, chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter cream cheese frosting, and berry shortcake). Of all the baked goods Hopper mentions in “Tending My Oven,” the one that intrigued me most was “Seven-Layer Insomnia Cake with Bitterness Buttercream Frosting.” So I decided to make my own version of it.

To pay tribute to “insomnia,” I made my cake coffee-flavored (as coffee usually exacerbates my own tendency toward insomnia). I followed this recipe from my name is yeh, leaving out the cardamom. To pay tribute to “bitterness,” I modified the recipe’s frosting to be less sweet, and I added about 1 tbsp cocoa powder since dark chocolate, like coffee, is delightfully bitter.

The final cake: two layers of coffee cake separated by mocha buttercream frosting and raspberry jam, and covered in more mocha buttercream frosting.

The recipe that I followed yields two 9″ round cakes, and I ended up being too afraid to slice the cakes into thinner layers. So I merely sandwiched them with a layer of mocha buttercream frosting and a layer of raspberry jam in between. Then I frosted the whole thing with more mocha buttercream. So my cake has either two, four, or five layers depending on what you consider to be a “layer” in the context of cake. I consider both the frosting and jam in between the two cakes to be their own layers.

Regardless of the number of layers, this cake is great. The coffee flavor is strong, and well balanced by the raspberry jam filling. Also, because the cake is made with canola oil, it doesn’t dry out quickly. The best thing about this cake, however, was that I got to share it with coworkers, allowing me to be “warm and sweet” and to express “authenticity and generosity.”