TOPICS OF CONVERSATION by Miranda Popkey

From the Jacket

Miranda Popkey’s first novel is about desire, disgust, motherhood, loneliness, art, pain, feminism, anger, envy, guilt–written in language that sizzles with intelligence and eroticism.  The novel is composed almost exclusively of conversations between women–the stories they tell each other, and the stories they tell themselves, about shame and love, infidelity and self-sabotage–and careens through twenty years in the life of an unnamed narrator hungry for experience and bent on upending her life.  Edgy, wry, shot through with rage and despair, TOPICS OF CONVERSATION introduces an audacious and immensely gifted new novelist.

My Thoughts

Miranda Popkey’s debut TOPICS OF CONVERSATION made my list of most anticipated releases of this year, primarily for its premise.  It’s a novel told entirely in conversations our main character has with different women, ten conversations spanning nearly twenty years of life.  My quarantine brain found this read difficult to grasp, but I suppose we’ll never know if that’s a symptom of the book or a personal fault.

“One searches, in one’s choice of partner, for a kind of reflection.  Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.  Often unconsciously.  And often not an honest reflection.  One searches for a better-than reflection.  An as-I-wish-I-were reflection.”

The biggest question running through my mind while reading Popkey’s novel was whether or not it passes the Bechdel test–you know, the test which asks whether a work features at least one conversation in which two women talk to each other about something other than a man?  Never have I thought about Bechdel while reading a work of fiction, but, I suppose given the format of TOPICS, it was all I could think about.  I’m not convinced Popkey’s novel passes the test, but I suppose that’s the point: the book is women talking to women about men.  As girlfriends, wives, and mothers.  As victims of sexual assault.

I did love the idea behind TOPICS OF CONVERSATION, and it’s a fine book, but I think it could have delivered on a much deeper level than it does.  TOPICS feels incredibly aware of its potential message, like Popkey is trying to hard to deliver a deep meaning that isn’t quite there.  For this reason, the book has received a fair amount of negative criticism, earning an average rating of 2.8 from lay readers on Goodreads; it’s clearly a very “marmite” book, with more people hating it than loving it.  My opinion?  Come for the premise, but stay for the effortless writing.

Further Reading

“We Need to Talk” by Megan O’Rourke, Bookforum
“An Interview with Miranda Popkey” by Zan Romanoff, Longreads
“What Happens if You Start Thinking of Your Life as a Narrative?” by Kristin Iversen, Lit Hub

4 Comments

  1. Ayunda

    Great review, though your remark on women talking to women about men really made me think about real life, and also about the book itself. It sounds like an interesting study of people and women, but maybe not the most amazing or groundbreaking story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Literary Elephant

    Great review! I was not as sold on the writing, though I absolutely loved the ideas behind this one. It certainly gives the reader a lot to think about, though I struggled with the read even before pandemic brain kicked in!

    Liked by 1 person

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