Girl Wonder

When Meaghan O’Connell finished reading a celebrated young author’s debut novel, she felt a mix of admiration, jealousy, and recognition of the powerlessness that comes with young adulthood.

Meaghan O’Connell | Longreads | July 2017 | 12 minutes (3,000 words)

The other week, a hardcover copy of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, was jammed through our front door mail slot as I was sitting down to dinner with my family. The book hit the floor with a dramatic plop and my 3-year-old son went sprinting over to grab it. It felt like it was Christmas and Santa had just unceremoniously dropped our bounty into the ashes of the fireplace.

“WHAT IS THIS? WHO’S IS THIS FOR?” he shouted at me in his cheerfully desperate way. My son is a book publicist’s dream.

“I think it’s a book,” I said.

“Is it a Mommy Book?!” he demanded, meaning is it a book that I, his mother, will read.

Yep, it’s a Mommy Book.”

Open it, Mommy! What’s your new book about?” The pitch of his voice is so high and so sincere and so loud, you either have to meet him where he is or beg him to shut up, which feels bad, to tamp down on a young child’s enthusiasm.

“Hold on,” I said and tore open the manila envelope full of anticipation, but my spirits sagged a little when I saw that it was yellow, perfect, and the very book I’d finished the day before. This copy was the published, official one — hardcover, blurbed; complete. I held it up to show my husband Dustin, pointing to the cover with a confused, sarcastic look on my face. “I just emailed their publicist yesterday about how much I loved it?” I said.

Dustin just shrugged. He works in publishing himself, book marketing specifically. “I guarantee you they have no idea who they’ve sent which copies of what book to,” he said, which I knew was a reasonable explanation but did not diminish the affronted feelings I had, my eyes scanning over the jacket copy, landing on the author bio.

“Sally Rooney was born in the west of Ireland in 1991.” I sighed loudly, only sort of joking, and pulled out the press release, a printed-out letter from the publisher, folded and tucked into the first pages of the book.

My heart fluttered as I read all the praise.

“BY the age of twenty-five, Sally Rooney was a well-established figure on the Irish literary scene.” I read aloud to Dustin, with a grandiosity that would have been mocking had I not already been won over by the book. “IN a heated, multi-house auction at the London Book Fair, rights to Conversations With Friends would be sold in ELEVEN countries, emphasis mine…and —“

“Why do they add that?” Dustin asked, cutting in just as my movie trailer voiceover impression was really kicking into high gear. “As if anyone actually cares about that stuff.”

“Ha!” I shout-laughed. “I care!” My ruefulness was so much so it broke into merriment. “They put it in for jealous bitches like me.”

“Okay, but normal people,” he said, trailing off, stabbing his spaghetti with a fork.

“Fair,” I said. Normal people are hard to argue with, especially 11 countries’ worth.

My hand twitched with the urge to text a photo of the press release to one of the handful of female peers who said they were too jealous to read a 25-year-old’s celebrated novel. Someone who GOT ME. I loved the book deeply. I’d been bowled over, thinking about it nonstop. But that was in galley form, when the book was less real, more of my own secret mind meld with the author. My own nostalgia trip. This hardcover, and its peripheral marketing stuff, the buzz — well, it was hard not to be affected.

The book came across my jealousy radar the same week Granta’s list of Best Young American Novelists was announced, a list I still scanned my name for, heart beating fast, despite never having written a novel. That same week I was noticing young people citing their birth year everywhere, and it was always in the ’90s. I exchanged somewhat embittered emails with my contemporaries about this, full of questions like: Is your frontal lobe even finished developing at age 24? Don’t I want to read women with something to teach me, women “at the height of their powers,” who can help me see into my own future, into my own nature, to all possible futures, all possible natures?? What could a child teach me about any of that! Furthermore doesn’t emphasizing someone’s age make everything into a race towards achievement and impressive career arcs — impressiveness, generally, and not “the work,” transcendence, etc?

I knew even as I wrote these dashed off emails that what I was really asking was: What could I have done, and sooner, if I hadn’t second-guessed myself? Then in an Instagram DM a friend reported that there was a billboard for it up in London. A billboard. For a book. Another friend emailed me a straightforward rebuke: “DO NOT READ THAT 24-YEAR-OLD’S BOOK!” I knew what she meant. Don’t confuse the vagaries of publishing with the Work. Do not get distracted by questions of fairness.

I remembered with a flash of embarrassment, the run-on sentence on my Tumblr bio circa 2008: “I’m Meaghan O’Connell and I’m 24 years old and I live in Brooklyn.” I remembered that I meant it it as a preemptive apology; an excuse. Also a declaration of sexual availability, if we’re being honest.

It is useless to contemplate a parallel universe, one where you wrote a semi-autobiographical novel instead of a blog. One where you were seen, recognized, deemed worthy from a young age and were therefore able to be where you are — no, better — but without all the frustration, the dues-paying, the hopelessness of your 20s. It’s easy to fantasize that being 25 and published in 11 countries and on a billboard will heal whatever is broken in us. Bitterness and resentment least of all. (Do normal people think that way, too? They must.)

I tried to imagine reading the line, “Sally Rooney was born in 1991,” as someone who was also born in 1991. Would I have felt pride, that strange defiant solidarity of youth? Would she have seemed credible, “one of us,” a reminder that eventually all of us babies would culturally unseat all the middle-aged people at whose gates we were rattling—with what felt like futility. Or did the sense of futility come after? I’m sure I would feel only desperate with ambition.

This very feeling, it turns out, is actually what Rooney captures so well. It is the feeling she must inspire, now, in young people who read her: that hunger for real power and real respect. The very material of the book — its driving questions — were exactly the ones I’d brought to it.

* * *

Novelist Sally Rooney. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

If Sally Rooney, author, is a girl wonder, her narrator Frances is not. The book is, on its surface, a story of two couples. First are Frances and Bobbi, Frances’ erstwhile girlfriend, now best friend with residual sexual tension. The girls are 21, still in school, charming, brilliant, living austere lives: Frances lives at the mercy, and with the small shame, of an allowance from her alcoholic, almost-estranged father. They’re full of potential and the paralyzing self-awareness that comes with it.

The book opens with the two of them doing an open mic performance of one of Frances’ poems together, then going back to the impressively adult flat of a woman named Melissa, who is older; married; an established writer. The dynamic is established in the first 25 pages:

I had wanted Melissa to take an interest in me, because we were both writers, but instead she didn’t seem to like me and I wasn’t even sure I liked her. I didn’t have the option not to take her seriously, because she had published a book, which proved that lots of other people took her seriously even if I didn’t. At twenty-one, I had no achievements or possessions that proved I was a serious person.

I dog-eared the page, feeling a minor exhilaration.

Melissa’s husband, Nick, flits in and out of this first scene’s background like Chekhov’s gun. He’s a struggling actor from, as we later learn, family money; his and Melissa’s relationship is tense and affectionless. Through the eyes of Bobbi and Frances, their marriage seems like a slow, conventional death.   

Rooney’s writing is blithe and casually devastating — Rooney’s narrator, Frances, threatens to unspool you at every turn.

I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me, I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was. When I couldn’t make friends as a child, I fantasized that I was smarter than all my teachers, smarter than any other student who had been in the school before, a genius hidden among normal people.

I remember the sharp intake of breath I took when I read this, the slow-burning dread of recognition.

Frances, like many young people, has interpersonal power she doesn’t quite know how to wield, but a blooming awareness of both her power and its limits. There is a precision and a rightness that makes it seem effortless, and renders her characters’ seeming offhand remarks feel all the more cutting.

* * *

When Frances engages in a protracted email flirtation with Nick, then begins an affair with him, it was almost a relief. I could feel like a smug grown-up, tut-tutting, wanting to reach into the book and futilely warn her that it would end badly. And yet I was vicariously thrilled. Isn’t this part of the appeal of consuming art by young people? To sit with the wisdom of our experience, enjoying the bravado of naivete at a comfortable remove?

When I read Frances’ repartee with Nick, her joking about dominating him in conversation, I felt almost sick with longing. “That’s like foreplay for us,” Nick says. “You say cryptic things I don’t understand, I give inadequate responses, you laugh at me, then we have sex. … It’s nice.”

When was the last time I dominated someone in conversation, I wondered. Things like negging bosses, sassing bartenders, writing off-the-rails emotional emails to men who didn’t care about me—these used to be core parts of my personality. There’s only so much opportunity for negging and insouciance when you’re parenting a small child and writing alone in a coffeeshop; everything feels too alarmingly high stakes for anything like bravado. I miss it.

Is this what we want from young people? The vicarious thrill of veering into the unreasonable, of making a scene. Just as we begin to long for the freedom of youth, Rooney begins to correct our slowly-degraded memory. If we had a certain vivacious riskiness about us, some verve that we long for now, maybe it was because we had nothing to lose. It’s so easy to confuse sexual power with actual power, to confuse aimlessness with freedom, bravado with self-respect.

The fact of money, having it or not, is irrefutable, a way to differentiate between shades of power. Rooney brings money talk in early, with a sort of offhanded Marxism; it’s funny, cutting, uncompromising. Early on Frances says she sees “no reason, political or financial,” ever to make more than $16,100 a year, which is what the average annual income would be if the the gross world product were divided evenly among everyone. In one of her earliest email exchanges with Nick, who has told her his family had a vacation home in County Mayo, where she’s from, she writes back to him, “I’m glad my ancestral home could help nourish your class identity. PS It should be illegal to have a holiday home anywhere.” I read this aloud to my socialist husband. He laughed and assented. I also read him Frances’ bit on Bobbi, proudly, as if she were my brilliant, class-aware child, or a TV show I was trying to slowly convince him was worth watching:

Bobbi had a way of belonging everywhere. Though she said she hated the rich, her family was rich, and other wealthy people recognized her as one of their own. They took her radical politics as a kind of bourgeois self-deprecation, nothing very serious, and talked to her about restaurants and where to stay in Rome.

“Maybe I need to read this book,” my husband said.

Satisfied, I turned over in bed to finish it, thinking that either the kids were, indeed, all right, or maybe it was just an Irish thing. Both.

* * *

When Frances tries on Nick’s expensive jacket and says, “I wish had money,” and he wonders aloud if it would be too weird for him to give it to her, I felt something closer to sadness for my younger self.

“I have money that I don’t urgently need, and I would rather you had it,” Nick says to Frances, “But the transaction of giving it to you would bother me.”

I took a photo of the page and texted to a friend. “What is this book!!” she replied.

“The one by a goddamn 24-year-old!” I said, with various despair emojis.

I laid awake thinking about the financial precariousness of my own early 20s: I thought of it almost a game, one I told myself was voluntary — it would have been too crushing to think of it otherwise. I remembered a wealthy boyfriend, who probably considered himself neither of those things, asking why I never wore underwear, and how sobering and unsexy it was when I admitted I couldn’t afford to do laundry that week. I was young, attractive, my life ahead of me, but I ate instant oatmeal for two meals a day. My student loans were in default. I had no health insurance. Granted there’s a difference between being poor and being broke — I was educated, and safe, and surely more employable than I felt. Still it’s hard to understand now, looking back, why these men didn’t lend me money, or why they went along with it when I insisted we split the check. To think of how many times I knowingly overdrew my bank account, unsure of what else to do.

“You don’t like to feel too powerful,” Frances says to Nick. “Or you don’t like to be reminded how powerful you like to feel.

He shrugged. He was still touching me underneath the coat. It was nice.

Reading this book I felt a protective tenderness toward my younger self. It forced me to rebuild alliances with myself. Dismissing myself as having been foolish, or reckless, had been easier, I could see. It was painful to remember that desperate desire to be taken seriously, that fear it would never happen — the way I grasped at all the wrong things, slept with all the wrong people, sent bad emails, ate Wasa crackers plain, longed for someone to tell me what I was worth, or that I was worthy. Or that I would be okay. That self-destructiveness was a symptom of powerlessness, not a coincidence or a contributing factor.

* * *

When Frances and Bobbi go to stay at Melissa and Nick’s summer home in the French countryside, the knife twists further. Nick and the girls laugh at Melissa, who is stressed out and snippy, sending them on errands, frantically cleaning the house. Melissa is the enemy — Frances and Nick’s romantic obstacle, and monogamy’s cautionary tale. She’s Mean Mommy, or maybe that’s just how she feels around them. She writes painfully compromising emails to Frances saying, “I admit I’m threatened by your extreme youth.”

“The first time you came to our house you looked around like: here’s something bourgeois and embarrassing that I’m going to destroy,” writes Melissa. “And I mean, you took such enjoyment in destroying it. Suddenly I’m looking around my own fucking house, thinking: is this sofa ugly? Is it kitsch to drink wine? And things I felt good about before started to make me feel pathetic. Having a husband instead of just fucking someone else’s husband. Having a book deal instead of writing nasty short stories about people I know and selling them to prestigious magazines. I mean you came into my house with your fucking nose piercing like: oh, I’ll really enjoy eviscerating this whole setup. She’s so establishment.”

As a reader, suddenly we’re relating to this outside point of view, and are thus reminded, or rebuked: You, too, are Mean Mommy. You, too, are threatened by extreme youth, the author’s and otherwise. You, too, are genuinely left wondering if it’s kitsch to drink wine.

“I didn’t realize you found me so subversive,” Frances replies. “In real life I didn’t feel any contempt for your house. I wanted it to be my house. I wanted your whole life. Maybe I did shitty things to try and get it, but I’m poor and you’re rich. I wasn’t trying to trash your life, I was trying to steal it.”

She reminds us that just because young people are hot, and their lives are a wide open question, and their weekends are free, it’s us with the real power, and that sending shitty emails to our friends about “goddamn 24-year-olds” is not, in fact, punching up.

“They were using us as a resource,” Bobbi says to Frances, in what I misremembered to be the end of the book. I remembered it ending this way because I think of this book as a book about power, about the ways we think about young people. But then I reread the end. My expectations were so upended I had blocked them out in my memory. Is that what we do about our past? If so, this book is a discomfiting antidote. You might call it a love story but I saw it as a story about vulnerability. It certainly softened me. Maybe that’s the same thing.

* * *

Meaghan O’Connell is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her book of essays on new motherhood, And Now We Have Everything will be published by Little, Brown in the spring of 2018.