Beautiful World, Where Are You
by Sally Rooney
reviewed by Chelsea Bingham
Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You is her third novel, after Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018). While Conversations with Friends was nominated for awards and critically successful, Normal People made Rooney a household name. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2018) and Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019), Normal People won the Costa Book Awards for best novel (2018) and British Book Award for Book of the Year (2019). In 2020, it was adapted into an award-winning series for BBC Three and Hulu, and Rooney herself was nominated for multiple awards for her work on the show, winning Best Script at the IFTA Film and Drama Awards. A television adaptation for Conversations with Friends is now in development. Rooney has, with her incisive character studies, deadpan wit, and unputdownable plots, thoroughly bridged the popular and the literary.
Beautiful World, Where Are You builds on her previous success and demonstrates an expansion of her range. It follows Alice Kelleher, a financially successful and critically acclaimed novelist, and her best friend Eileen Lydon, a low-paid editor at a literary journal, through the twenty-ninth year of their lives. Alice, after experiencing a mental breakdown, moves to a large house by the sea three hours outside of Dublin and meets Felix Brady, a warehouse worker who has no idea who she is. Back in Dublin, Eileen has gone through a breakup and renews an intimate relationship with a man she’s known since childhood, Simon Costigan, a politician five years her senior.
Alice and Felix’s unlikely relationship begins with an inauspicious first date and spontaneous trip to Rome where Alice is doing publicity for her new book. Still strangers, they share an apartment (and eventually a bed), but not without conflict along the way. Meanwhile, Eileen and Simon’s fifteen-year history might be the very complication that prevents their having a successful relationship, despite a deep and caring friendship underpinning their romantic attraction. Rooney writes about love and sex with depth and sensitivity, but never takes either topic too seriously. That is not to say that this is not a serious novel—the plot may be driven by young, attractive people falling in love and having sex, but it is at its heart about how to find meaning in an increasingly ugly world.
Every sentence compels you to read more, but Rooney is at her best with Alice and Eileen’s correspondence. Their ability to reflect with seriousness on “cataclysmic historic events that structure [their] present sense of reality” comfortably coexists with their hyperbolic expressions of their personal lives. In one email, Eileen tells Alice, “It has become normal in my life, for example, to send text messages like the following: tillerson out at state lmaoooo. It just strikes me that it really shouldn’t be normal to send texts like that.” Shortly thereafter, she writes that she saw her ex-boyfriend “randomly on the street the other day and immediately had a heart attack and died.” The way Alice and Eileen fluidly shift between formal speech and slang, and global and personal topics, highlights their education and their standing as digital natives steeped in Internet culture and the endless news cycle. Rooney excels at depicting the densely layered and varied ways that this generation communicates.
In their back-and-forth, the women discuss topics ranging from politics to plastics, celebrity culture to religion. A particular preoccupation is our dying planet and the worth (or worthlessness) of making art when it feels like the end is near: “You should know,” writes Alice, “that our correspondence is my way of holding on to life, taking notes on it, and thereby preserving something of my—otherwise almost worthless, or even entirely worthless—existence on this rapidly degenerating planet.” It brings her to question her entire profession: what is the use of “making up stories about people who don’t exist,” when it contributes nothing to solving the concrete problems of the world?
It doesn’t help that the one thing that gives Alice’s life meaning—writing—also led to her psychological breakdown. Exposure to other successful writers, who “pretend to be obsessed with death and grief and fascism—when really they’re obsessed with whether their latest book will be reviewed in the New York Times,” only adds to her loss of faith in her occupation. Through Alice’s disillusionment, Rooney puts on display the toxicity of the literary world: Alice grows rich while Eileen can barely make a living, and Felix is torn apart on the internet because he has never read Alice’s books. Alice tells Eileen that “the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world—packing it tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text. […] My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard. For this reason I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel again.” Alice rightfully struggles to reconcile her part in contributing to this toxicity with her personal beliefs about capitalism. What she neglects to acknowledge is the ability of art to alleviate suffering and examine inequities. Beautiful World, Where Are You is itself an exercise in doing so.
It is in some ways by accepting their ephemerality that Alice and Eileen can begin to see a future that isn’t completely grim. Eileen writes to Alice,
When I look back on what we were like when we first met, I don’t think we were really wrong about anything, except about ourselves. The ideas were right, but the mistake was that we thought we mattered. Well, we’ve both had that particular error ground out of us in different ways—me by achieving precisely nothing in over a decade of adult life, and you (if you’ll forgive me) by achieving as much as you possibly could and still not making one grain of difference to the smooth functioning of the capitalist system.
Their youthful determination to care for the earth and everything on it has—in just a handful of years—given way to “trying not to let down [their] loved ones, trying not to use too much plastic, and in [Alice’s] case trying to write an interesting book once every few years.” However, for all their seriousness about the state of the world and the futility of doing just about anything, the two women are still fully engaged in it. Their willingness to love their partners, write to one another, and bring books—maybe even babies—into the world, demonstrates their investment in a future that isn’t devoid of meaning. Rooney, unlike her fictional novelist, is willing to explore, rather than suppress, truths of the world. And while her text is tightly packed with meaning and imagery, it glitters less than it illuminates. She writes without pretense and with undeniable beauty.
Published on September 9, 2021