Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young-but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?
by Olivia Fricot
In a message I sent to a friend while halfway through Beautiful World, Where Are You, I wrote, ‘Sally Rooney would like everyone to know that she has read all of the thinkpieces we wrote about her and she thinks that they are very silly.’
At the time I was trying to be funny, but something about the sentiment rings true. No other millennial writer in recent memory has generated quite so much literary consternation: her worth is debated in the culture sections of various magazines while her publishers erect ‘Sally Rooney pop-up’ shops for her eager fans. It’s the kind of hype that starts to eat itself, and it’s clear from her latest book that the author could do without it. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney grapples with what it means to be a very famous novelist, but also what it means to make art when culture and civilisation seem to be defined by crisis. It’s the latter question that proves to be the most compelling.
Beautiful World, Where Are You unspools the lives of four young people: there’s Alice, the famous novelist, and her best friend Eileen, the not-so-famous literary magazine assistant, and then there’s the men they’re seeing. Felix is a warehouse worker with whom Alice shares a prickly yet undeniably erotic relationship, and Simon is Eileen’s friend from childhood who is slowly becoming something more. The novel is partly epistolary in nature, with chapters of action interrupted by long, lovingly tempestuous emails sent back-and-forth between Alice and Eileen. In them, they debate life, art, history, and politics, bemoaning the fate of the world while offering updates about their romantic lives with studied nonchalance. When the women reunite towards the novel’s end, they find themselves reckoning with the gap between the perception they created with their correspondence and the actual reality of their lives and relationships.
There is so much to love about this new novel. It’s smart and thoughtful, poking at the tender underbellies of our feelings to see if they can withstand modern cruelty and indifference. In a sense, it’s much more like Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friends, with its four central characters tripping over each other’s needs, beliefs, and desires. I came to love each of them dearly; for all the hand-wringing about her sparseness of style, I have always found her prose to be interesting and her characters richly drawn. Rooney is the master of implication, in that her characters never have to say very much for the canny reader to follow their thoughts to some compelling emotional conclusion. Their anxieties about the world — and their relation to each other within it — aren’t necessarily new, but still feel fresh. In a time where you might be questioning whether it’s worth it to pursue love or beauty (or even to read a novel at all), Beautiful World, Where Are You emerges with an answer you weren’t expecting, but which is all the more welcome for it.
It’s no overstatement to say that this is a novel with enormous shoes to fill. The wake left by Normal People brewed excitement for whatever Rooney wrote next to a feverish boil, and I sheepishly admit to being a contributor to the hype machine. But what I won’t apologise for is enjoying the works of an author this good, and Beautiful World, Where Are You is a novel that successfully tempers the frenzy. It’s self-assured, more hopeful and — dare I say it? — beautiful.