Themes

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1286

The Need for Friendship, Love, and Intimacy

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The main theme of the novel is the human need for love, affection, and friendship, as well as the complexity that follows from that need. Rooney showcases the intimate—often overlapping—connection between love and friendship, but she also examines how they can be worlds apart.

All of the main characters struggle with the inability to define love and to explain their emotions. Frances—the novel’s protagonist and narrator—is someone who felt “lonely and unworthy of real friendship” for the majority of her childhood. She grew up with an alcoholic father and a mother who tried to keep the family together but failed to do so. Meeting Bobbi changes Frances’s life; their close rapport is a source of joy, but at the same time she finds herself wishing to be more like Bobbi, which awakens her insecurities.

When Frances meets Nick, she realizes that aside from being physically attracted to him, she also yearns for his “personal approval.” She wants to leave a good impression and to be “someone worthy of praise and of love.”

Maybe having him witness how much others approved of me, without taking any of the risks necessary to earn Nick’s personal approval, made me feel capable of speaking to him again, as if I also was an important person with lots of admirers like he was, as if there was nothing inferior about me. But the acclaim also felt like part of the performance itself, the best part, and the most pure expression of what I was trying to do, which was to make myself into this kind of person: someone worthy of praise, worthy of love.

On the other hand, Bobbi is someone who isn’t afraid to hide her vulnerability behind her mental strength. She tries to find logic in love and to explain it as a phenomenon, but no matter how satisfying that would prove to be theoretically, in reality, it is a much different story. Despite her strong opinions on the matter, Bobbi is obviously very much in love with Frances, who considers herself to be “anti-love.” This becomes clear in the messages they exchange between them:

Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon
Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system
Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness
Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality
Bobbi: and yet also it’s subservient and facilitatory
Bobbi: i.e. mothers selflessly raising children without any profit motive
Bobbi: which seems to contradict the demands of the market at one level
Bobbi: and yet actually just functions to provide workers for free
me: yes
me: capitalism harnesses “love” for profit
me: love is the discursive practice and unpaid labour is the effect
me: but I mean, I get that, I’m anti love as such
Bobbi: that’s vapid frances
Bobbi: you have to do more than say you’re anti things.

Nick certainly experiences love with Frances, despite his being married to another woman. Meeting Frances helps Nick understand the difference between being in love in a way that traps him in his emotions and, on the other hand, being in love in a felicitous and freely expressive way. Thus, defining love might seem improbable, but to discover its meaning, one only needs to experience it.

The Multidimensional Nature of Infidelity

Melissa and Nick have an unusual relationship. It is obvious that they care for one another and perhaps love each other, and yet they are both unfaithful. When Philip—Frances’s colleague and friend—learns that Frances is sleeping with Nick, he tells her that he cannot believe that she “let someone take advantage of her like that.” He firmly believes that adultery is morally wrong and deeply hurtful for all parties involved. On the other hand, when Melissa learns that Nick is having an affair, she tries to understand him and even justifies his actions to some degree. As someone who has been unfaithful as well, she subconsciously blames herself for allowing her husband to fall for another woman. At the same time, however, she wonders if Nick truly married her out of love or out of “loyalty and a craving for punishment.”

Rooney uncovers the multidimensional nature of infidelity by examining characters’ motivations, desires and impulses. At one point, Frances sends an email to Bobbi in which she writes:

The truth is that I love you and I always have. Do I mean that Platonically? I don’t object when you kiss me. The idea of us sleeping together again has always been exciting. When you broke up with me I felt you beat me at a game we were playing together, and I wanted to come back and beat you. Now I think I just want to sleep with you, without metaphors. That doesn’t mean I don’t have other desires. Right now for example, I’m eating chocolate cake out of the box with a teaspoon. To love someone under capitalism you have to love everyone. Is that theory or just theology?

Frances expresses an unusual view in which love “doesn’t consist of two people, or even three.” Two humans bound in a relationship are ineluctably influenced by their surroundings—including the pull of other people—and are forever swayed by other desires. By this light, it is possible for someone to be in love with more than one person at once.

Additionally, Rooney coaxes readers to consider if the strong pull of emotional and physical desire, as well as the drive for genuine happiness and satisfaction, explain and even justify infidelity. In this context, she paints a portrait of the human psyche when animated by desire.

The Importance of Communication

Rooney’s novel suggests that communication plays a fundamental role in all kinds of relationships. When Frances begins to exchange emails with Nick, she reflects that the last time she felt this comfortable talking to someone about everything and nothing at the same time was when she was dating Bobbi in high school. When she feels insecure about something or when she feels tense and uninspired, Frances often goes through the messages she and Bobbi have sent to one another. Some of them are personal and informal, while others are deeply philosophical and existential. Reading the messages helps her cope with whatever she is going through at the moment, but they also remind her how important Bobbi is to her. Unlike Frances, Bobbi is unafraid to voice her opinions and her emotions, and the record of their correspondence is a touchstone for Frances.

The importance of communication is underscored by the consequences that follow from lack of communication. That lack is the main reason why Frances and Nick break up in the first part of the novel. Frances feels neglected and believes that she cares about Nick more than he cares about her. She tries but fails to understand how he feels, because he never actually expresses his feelings and desires vocally. He doesn’t call her to tell her that he misses her while he is at work, and he rarely initiates expressions of affection between them. Interestingly enough, Nick was actually feeling the same way as Frances did. In the second part of the novel they manage to resolve their issues and decide to work on their communication. In the end, when Nick calls Frances and indicates that he is still in love with her, she decides to no longer suppress her feelings and “comes clean” about everything: her illness, her relationship with Bobbi and her feelings. She asks Nick to “come and get her,” hinting at the possibility of romantic reunion.

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