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Book review - Beautiful World, Where Are You
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Phil Vine reviews Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, published by Allen and Unwin.
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Books of The Times
Sally Rooney and Love in the Time of General Systems Collapse
By John Williams
- Sept. 1, 2021
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It’s very Gen X to complain about stardom, to make a show of resisting it. A bit ironic then, if understandable, that the Irish novelist Sally Rooney is chafing at her fame . If you read only glancingly about literary culture, you could be forgiven for thinking that she is less a writer than a piece of $20 avocado toast, an excuse for people to express bafflement at the very idea of millennials and what they might be after or up to. Generational profiles often have broad truths to offer, but Rooney’s youth (the author of “Conversations With Friends” and “Normal People” is just now 30) seems to have short-circuited many observers. The discussion around her can feel so extraliterary that it’s easy to lose sight of what she does well on the page, which is quite a bit.
Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” (the phrase’s provenance dates to an 18th-century poem; it’s still a terrible title), is about four people, first among them Alice Kelleher, a clear stand-in for the author. Alice has written two novels, become unexpectedly rich and famous from them, and has moved into an old rectory in a remote town, looking for solitude after a stay in a psychiatric hospital. On a Tinder date in the opening scene, she meets Felix, a local warehouse worker.
The novel’s third-person narrative alternates with email exchanges between Alice and her friend Eileen, an editorial assistant at a literary magazine in Dublin. Both women are 29. Eileen is obsessing about an ex-boyfriend, and also possibly kindling a romance with Simon, an Oxford-educated political adviser she’s known since childhood. Simon is five years older than Eileen; when she was a child, he loomed unreachable in her affections.
[ Read our profile of Sally Rooney . ]
The bond between Alice and the spiky, decidedly unliterary Felix might flummox. She explains it to Eileen by saying that “our lives have been different in basically every respect,” but “there’s a lot we recognize in one another.” Alice is, like many of Rooney’s characters, both confident and self-hating. “You must think you’re very special,” Felix says to her at one point very early on. She does and she doesn’t. The same night Felix says this, Alice impulsively invites him to join her on a publicity trip to Rome. Her tolerance of his antagonism reinforces the sense we have of her unease about the life and work she’s built. “Might as well hear what your books are about,” he says before attending one of her author events, “seeing as I’m not going to read them.”
In scenes driven mostly by talk and those emails, Rooney’s characters chew over the ubiquity and ethics of pornography, the thriving industry of public contrition and forgiveness, the framework of victims and oppressors in identity politics.
But despite spirited inquiries into these subjects, Rooney’s fiction to this point remains philosophically anchored in the realms of friendship and romance. Alice doesn’t love this. We care, she writes to Eileen, “whether people break up or stay together if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e., everything.” And in case you think you have the drop on Rooney — ahem, Alice — the next line is: “My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard.”
Alice is a more obvious avatar for Rooney than Eileen, but it can feel as if the author, a former debate champion, is having Socratic conversations with herself through the correspondence between the two. In response to Alice’s note about love stories, Eileen writes: “We can wait, if you like, to ascend to some higher plane of being, at which point we’ll start directing all our mental and material resources toward existential questions and thinking nothing of our own families, friends, lovers and so on. But we’ll be waiting, in my opinion, a long time, and in fact we’ll die first.” And this, she says, is a good thing: “It’s the very reason I root for us to survive — because we are so stupid about each other.”
Though people might crave to parse or market the voice of a generation, Rooney is up to very old-fashioned things. Alice and Eileen’s emails are digital, but as the equivalent of 15-page handwritten letters they feel downright anachronistic.
When Rooney does write about social media and texting, their presence is perfectly organic, and she’s smart about their texture and effects. At one point, we’re shown Eileen checking her feeds: “Her expression, her posture, did not vary depending on the information she encountered” while scrolling. “Nothing changed in her outward relationship to the world that would allow an observer to determine what she felt about what she saw.” Or, as an earlier generation might have put it: Earthquakes and dog pics, same diff.
In a novelist’s hands, as in real life, technology is what one makes of it. It’s difficult to sell “actual lol” as a brutally emotional and telling line, but Rooney does, capping off a testy text exchange between Eileen and her sister.
Rooney’s people are reflective of their time and milieu — like most convincing characters — and it’s true that some of their qualities will be perplexing to those north of 40. One of these qualities is a generalized concern more earnest and unremitting than any radicalism in living memory. They can’t walk into a convenience store without thinking of “the culmination of all the labor in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the backbreaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations.”
Rooney is by all accounts plenty earnest herself, but she has the necessary gift of complicating that — even poking fun at it — in her work. In one scene, as the group is about to enter a party to meet Felix’s friends, he turns to everyone and says: “Now just be normal, all right? Don’t go in there talking about, like, world politics” and stuff like that. “People will think you’re freaks.”
In all three of her novels, Rooney writes directly, convincingly, hotly about sex. These scenes arrive with such well-timed frequency that “erotica” doesn’t seem an unfair subcategory for the books. Much of the power in these scenes — and the talkier ones — arises from their riskiness. Impassioned, intellectual 20-somethings discussing their vexed feelings for one another is a road made mostly of potholes. Rooney avoids almost all of them. The fact that her characters speak and feel the way they do while rarely making the reader feel embarrassed for them is an achievement. It’s an uncomfortable line to toe, but Rooney succeeds by standing so close to it.
In the 1997 essay “The End of the Novel of Love,” Vivian Gornick persuasively argued that love as a theme no longer had the ability to undergird fiction. This was, in part, because there were fewer complications to it, not as many obstacles to people loving (or stopping loving) however and whomever they wanted. But for Rooney’s characters, that’s the complication. They live in the rubble of love’s conventions and much else. Referring to an article she read about the Late Bronze Age, Eileen wonders if the world isn’t again on the brink of a “general systems collapse.”
“Traditional marriage was obviously not fit for purpose,” Alice writes to Eileen, “but at least it was an effort at something, and not just a sad sterile foreclosure on the possibility of life.” Alice and company don’t feel there’s anything they need to be or should be doing romance-wise, which makes their couplings even more difficult to decide upon or enact with any satisfaction. And this makes them surprisingly moving.
The novel’s thoughts on fame are among its least inspired. It’s easy to trust that fame is a deeply mixed blessing, but everything that rock stars (literary and otherwise) seem to have discovered about that fact is simple and repetitive. When Alice complains that she doesn’t see herself in the public’s image of her, it’s believable but in the way of a cliché.
Rooney might refine her inquiries into her own popularity over time, or she might just go on profitably writing about the questions that have paved the way to that popularity: “Have I hurt you, do you love me, will you always.”
Follow John Williams on Twitter: @johnwilliamsnyt .
Beautiful World, Where Are You By Sally Rooney 356 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021
Chelsea bingham, more online by chelsea bingham.
- Such a Fun Age
- Normal People
- Certain American States
- Gravity Changes
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
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Awards & Accolades
Kirkus Reviews' Best Books Of 2021
New York Times Bestseller
BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU
by Sally Rooney ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 7, 2021
A novel of capacious intelligence and plenty of page-turning emotional drama.
Two erudite Irishwomen struggle with romance against the backdrop of the Trump/Brexit years.
Eileen and Alice have been friends since their university days. Now in their late 20s, Eileen works as an editorial assistant at a literary magazine in Dublin. Alice is a famous novelist recovering from a psychiatric hospitalization and staying in a large empty rectory on the west coast of Ireland. Since Alice’s breakdown, the two have kept in touch primarily through lengthy emails that alternate between recounting their romantic lives and working through their angst about the current social and political climate. (In one of these letters, Eileen laments that the introduction of plastic has ruined humanity’s aesthetic calibration and in the next paragraph, she’s eager to know if Alice is sleeping with the new man she’s met.) Eileen has spent many years entangled in an occasionally intimate friendship with her teenage crush, a slightly older man named Simon who is a devout Catholic and who works in the Irish Parliament as an assistant. As Eileen and Simon’s relationship becomes more complicated, Alice meets Felix, a warehouse worker who is unsure what to make of her fame and aloofness. In many ways, this book, a work of both philosophy and romantic tragicomedy about the ways people love and hurt one another, is exactly the type of book one would expect Rooney to write out of the political environment of the past few years. But just because the novel is so characteristic of Rooney doesn’t take anything away from its considerable power. As Alice herself puts it, “Humanity on the cusp of extinction [and] here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?”
Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2021
Page Count: 368
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online: June 15, 2021
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021
LITERARY FICTION | GENERAL FICTION
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More by Sally Rooney
by Sally Rooney
More About This Book
SEEN & HEARD
by Emily Henry ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 25, 2023
A wistfully nostalgic look at endings, beginnings, and loving the people who will always have your back.
Exes pretend they’re still together for the sake of their friends on their annual summer vacation.
Wyn Connor and Harriet Kilpatrick were the perfect couple—until Wyn dumped Harriet for reasons she still doesn’t fully understand. They’ve been part of the same boisterous friend group since college, and they know that their breakup will devastate the others and make things more than a little awkward. So they keep it a secret from their friends and families—in fact, Harriet barely even admits it to herself, focusing instead on her grueling hours as a surgical resident. She’s ready for a vacation at her happy place—the Maine cottage she and her friends visit every summer. But (surprise!) Wyn is there too, and he and Harriet have to share a (very romantic) room and a bed. Telling the truth about their breakup is out of the question, because the cottage is up for sale, and this is the group’s last hurrah. Determined to make sure everyone has the perfect last trip, Harriet and Wyn resolve to fake their relationship for the week. The problem with this plan, of course, is that Harriet still has major feelings for Wyn—feelings that only get stronger as they pretend to be blissfully in love. As always, Henry’s dialogue is sparkling and the banter between characters is snappy and hilarious. Wyn and Harriet’s relationship, shown both in the past and the present, feels achingly real. Their breakup, as well as their complicated relationships with their own families, adds a twinge of melancholy, as do the relatable growing pains of a group of friends whose lives are taking them in different directions.
Pub Date: April 25, 2023
Page Count: 400
Review Posted Online: Feb. 23, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2023
ROMANCE | CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE | GENERAL ROMANCE | GENERAL FICTION
More by Emily Henry
by Emily Henry
IT STARTS WITH US
by Colleen Hoover ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 18, 2022
Through palpable tension balanced with glimmers of hope, Hoover beautifully captures the heartbreak and joy of starting over.
The sequel to It Ends With Us (2016) shows the aftermath of domestic violence through the eyes of a single mother.
Lily Bloom is still running a flower shop; her abusive ex-husband, Ryle Kincaid, is still a surgeon. But now they’re co-parenting a daughter, Emerson, who's almost a year old. Lily won’t send Emerson to her father’s house overnight until she’s old enough to talk—“So she can tell me if something happens”—but she doesn’t want to fight for full custody lest it become an expensive legal drama or, worse, a physical fight. When Lily runs into Atlas Corrigan, a childhood friend who also came from an abusive family, she hopes their friendship can blossom into love. (For new readers, their history unfolds in heartfelt diary entries that Lily addresses to Finding Nemo star Ellen DeGeneres as she considers how Atlas was a calming presence during her turbulent childhood.) Atlas, who is single and running a restaurant, feels the same way. But even though she’s divorced, Lily isn’t exactly free. Behind Ryle’s veneer of civility are his jealousy and resentment. Lily has to plan her dates carefully to avoid a confrontation. Meanwhile, Atlas’ mother returns with shocking news. In between, Lily and Atlas steal away for romantic moments that are even sweeter for their authenticity as Lily struggles with child care, breastfeeding, and running a business while trying to find time for herself.
Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022
Page Count: 352
Review Posted Online: July 26, 2022
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2022
More by Colleen Hoover
by Colleen Hoover
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Beautiful World, Where Are You (Review, Synopsis & Summary)
By sally rooney.
Book review and synopsis for Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, sally Rooney's latest modern day romance.
In Beautiful World, Where Are You , Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.
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?
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot Summary
The one-paragraph version: Alice and Eileen are best friends from college, both 29 or 30-ish. Alice is a successful novelist who has recently had a nervous breakdown. She starts seeing Felix, a warehouse worker she met off Tinder. Meanwhile, Eileen is an editorial assistant at a literary magazine in Dublin. She starts a casual relationship with Simon, a handsome childhood friend. Felix initially resists a relationship with Alice, saying that she likes him behaving poorly towards her so that she can be morally superior. Simon, too, doesn't really pursue Eileen (even though he has always loved her), saying that she pushes people away. Alice and Eileen also have tension in their friendship, since each feels they care more than the other does. In the end, both couples (and the women) are able to be more vulnerable with one another. The couples end up together and the women forge a stronger friendship.
The book opens in a village a few hours away from Dublin with Alice Kelleher meeting a man from Tinder, Felix Brady , at a bar. Alice is a novelist who is new in town and who has published a successful book, and Felix is a warehouse worker. The date is awkward and the two don't quite hit it off.
Meanwhile, in Dublin, Eileen Lydon (Alice's best friend), 29, meets up with a family friend, Simon Costigan , for coffee. Eileen is an editorial assistant at a literary magazine. Eileen was a social outcast in primary and secondary school, and her older sister Lola was mean to her. Simon (who is 5 years older than her) was the first person to really befriend her when she was a teenager. Later, when she's 21, she ends up sleeping with Simon after he has a bad breakup, but nothing comes of it from there. In present day, Simon tells her he's bringing a woman he's been seeing ( Caroline ) to Lola's upcoming wedding, but he offers to go alone for Eileen's sake if she wants.
(Throughout the book, Alice and Eileen write letters back and forth updating each other on their personal lives and detailing their thoughts on various topics. In the letters, you can see that they care about each other a lot, but that there is some unspoken tension between them as well.)
Alice and Felix later run into each other in town and Felix invites her to a party at his place so she can meet some new people. Alice attends. She ends up telling Felix about how she had a nervous breakdown a while ago which landed her in the hospital for a short time. She also impulsively invites Felix on a work trip to Rome, offering to pay for everything since he can't afford to go otherwise.
In Dublin, Eileen repeatedly looks up her ex, Aidan Lavin , online to see what he's up to on social media. One night, she calls up Simon and has phone sex with him. A short while later, Eileen is upset to find out that Aidan has started dating someone new, and she ends up going to Simon's place and initiating sex with him. The next morning, she goes to Mass with him (because Simon is devoutly Catholic).
In Rome, Felix says to Alice that he knows she's in love with him. They later have a heart-to-heart where they each admit bad things they've done in the past, and Felix tells Alice that he likes her. They sleep together.
Meanwhile, in Dublin, Eileen and Simon continue hanging out and hooking up. However, they go to party where some else is flirting with Simon, where people are joking about how Simon likes younger women and they're talking about how great Caroline is. Eileen gets upset about all of it and leaves. Simon follows her and they argue. Simon says that he's asked her out before and she wasn't interested. It wasn't until he started seeing Caroline that she started wanting to sleep with him. Simon and Eileen decide to go back to be just being friends.
A while after returning from Rome, Alice and Felix finally see each other again. Felix has "ghosted" Alice since the trip, and Alice is upset with him. Felix says he's not looking for any "big commitments". Alice is fine with it as long as he doesn't ghost her again. They start casually seeing each other. One day, Felix admits that he's not known as the most reliable guy around town and has debts, but he reassures her that he won't be asking her for money. Later, they get into an argument when Felix accuses Alice of liking it when he "acts badly" towards her since it puts her morally above him, which is where she likes to be. Still, they keep seeing each other.
In June, Eileen and Simon see each other again at Lola's wedding and it reawakens their feelings for one another. Afterwards, they both head to Alice's place since they'd previously arranged to go see Alice. The first day there is idyllic with Felix hanging out with the three of them and Alice feeling very happy to have them all there. Simon also reveals that he broke up with Caroline because he was in love with Eileen.
The book ends with Alice and Eileen making up. It then jumps forward 18 months and we see that both couples are still together. (The pandemic is going on now.) Eileen has just found out that she's pregnant and she's very happy about it.
For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary .
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Beautiful World, Where Are You is Sally Rooney’s latest release, which has book clubs abuzz with excitement or irritation, depending on how you feel about her. She’s become somewhat of a controversial figure with some people absolutely loving her bleak modern-day romances and others bemoaning her writing and angrily denouncing what they view as an undeserved literary status.
While I’m not really a Sally Rooney fan, I also don’t like to tell people what the “should” or “should not” enjoy. (I realize this seems to contrary to being someone who reviews books, but my goal is to help lead people to books they might enjoy, not to tell people what they must or must not like.)
Anyway, in Beautiful World, Where Are You , Sally Rooney continues her Tumultuous Relationships book series (beginning with her first two novels Conversations with Friends and Normal People ), whereby young women chase after their respective love interests, resulting in miscommunications, too many things left unsaid and strained will-they-or-won’t-they scenarios.
Here, Rooney’s novel is centered about the romantic exploits of two best friends, Alice and Eileen. Alice is a novelist with one successful book under her belt, but she’s also recently had a nervous breakdown that landed her in a psychiatric facility for a short time. Eileen is beautiful and works as an assistant at a literary magazine. Alice is busy pursuing Felix, a working-class man she has recently met on Tinder. While Eileen is pursuing her old crush, a handsome family friend named Simon.
Like her first two books, the story is told with a focus on the women, and the narrative is centered around the push and pull of their relationships. The relationships here are similar in some ways to the ones in her previous books, but not carbon copies. Meanwhile, cursory discussions of things like political philosophy, art and other high-brow topics are scattered throughout the book.
I was glad to find that Beautiful World is a more mature book than her two prior novels. The two female protagonists write letters back and forth, which provides an Rooney with the opportunity to provide some perspective on the characters’ mindsets and sometimes a counterpoint to the other character’s comments.
For example, in one instance, the over-romanticized way that Eileen describes a night spent with Simon in a letter to Alice contrasts starkly with the sad, somewhat desperate way the events are actually narrated in the book. In other instances, the two women call each other out, such as when the other seems to be wallowing in self-pity or is making questionable decisions. I often feel like the epistolary form in novels ends up being a little gimmicky, but here Rooney really makes good use of it.
There’s also less of an obsession with being “cool” and “popular” than was seen in Rooney’s prior novels (which really irked me about those first two books). It’s not entirely gone — Rooney still feels the need to make clear what each woman’s social standing was at various points in their life and she repeats the same template of having a character who was a social outcast in high school being very popular in college. However, it’s more of an aside than something that’s harked on though-out the book.
Instead, in Beautiful World , Rooney spends more time on things like Simon’s Catholicism, ruminations about the current state of politics, the publishing industry, thoughts about the women’s careers and other more topics. Though these discussions are often more of a reflection of the characters’ mindsets at the time than an attempt to address these things substantively.
I should mention that many of Rooney’s writing habits that don’t sit well with me are still very much present as well. There is an element of repetitiveness in her novels with all her female characters seeming like slight variations of the same person. There’s so much pretension at every turn. There’s still no punctuation. The relationship dynamics have a sameness to them, even if there are slight variations. There’s also the same victim complex that permeates her protagonists.
Read it or Skip it?
The short version: Beautiful World, Where Are You is a more mature novel and represents growth for Sally Rooney as a writer, but it still feels like more of the same as well.
The longer version: I think fans of Rooney’s prior novels will love this book, and I do think it’s in some ways a stronger novel than her previous ones. Some people who disliked the first two books could consider giving this one a chance to see if Beautiful World appeals to you more, especially if you were someone who was on the fence about her (as opposed to outright loathing the first two books).
For me, personally, I think there’s just something inherently boring about reading about people pining after someone who doesn’t love/like them enough or isn’t mentally ready to be in a healthy relationship or people pursuing somewhat hopeless situations in general. When I was younger, I was more interested in this type of thing, seeing it as an engrossing will-they-or-won’t-they situation.
However, over time I’ve come to find the whole exercise really pointless. Ultimately, people who are lukewarm about you or too wrapped up in their own insecurities to be in a healthy relationship are just not viable prospects. My view is that unhealthy, tumultuous courtships tend to result in unhealthy, tumultuous relationships, so there’s nothing particularly romantic or sad about them ending up together or not.
Ultimately, I think Rooney will continue to elicit very divisive opinions, just because there’s things she does very well (like managing to evoke a range of very specific and relatable feelings from relationships that we’ve all had before and her careful fixation on the nuances in the interactions between people) and there’s things that will continue to irk people (how her protagonists constantly see themselves as victims of the world around them, the lack of punctuation, the similarities in the characters she writes, etc.).
Still, Beautiful World, Where Are You shows some compelling growth for her as a writer. Even if I wasn’t terribly impressed by it, I still liked it better than her first two books, and I enjoyed it enough to be curious about what she comes up with next. I think it’ll be interesting to see how her writing continues to develop.
See Beautiful World, Where Are You on Amazon.
Beautiful World, Where Are You Audiobook
Narrated by : Aoife McMahon Length : 10 hours 3 minutes
Hear a sample of the Beautiful World, Where Are You audiobook on Libro.fm.
- What were your initial impressions of the relationships described in the book, and how did your impressions of the relationships between these four characters change throughout the book?
- What did you think of the four main characters and were there some that you preferred over the others? Did you think some of them were more sympathetic or more relatable that the others? Were you rooting for any of them to get together?
- What did you think of the character of Lola and why do you think Rooney describes her the way she does (in her being mean to Eileen, etc.)?
- Why do you think Rooney decided to tell parts of this story in the form of letters?
- In certain parts of the book, Rooney describes the actions of two different characters in a side-by-side type fashion (where she describes what one of them is doing and what the other is doing at the exact same time). What do you think she was trying to achieve by doing this, and do you think it was effective?
- What do you think Felix meant (in Chapter 27) when he told Eileen that Simon and Alice weren’t like Felix and Eileen?
- How does religion play into the characters such as Simon and Alice? Why do you think Rooney depicted them this way?
- What did you think of Rooney’s discussions of things like politics, or art, or the concept of beauty?
- In what parts of the book did you think Rooney was talking most directly to the reader (as in expressing her own opinions as opposed to those of the character she was describing)? What did you think about Alice’s views on fame and being a celebrity author?
- Did you like the ending of the book, why or why not?
- Why do you think Rooney chose this title for this book?
Read the first pages of Beautiful World, Where Are You
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In Beautiful World, Where Are You , Alice is a novelist who meets Felix, a warehouse worker, from Tinder. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a handsome, older childhood friend.
As they navigate these relationships, differences in class or lifestyles, miscommunications, and things left unsaid get in the way. Once again, Rooney offers up a compelling modern will-they-or-won't-they love story.
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I think the dog gets a raw deal. Cannot believe she is so neglected.
Definitely a return to form! I feel this book shows the developing maturity of Rooney as a novelist and artist.
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Sally Rooney's New Novel May Be Her Best Yet
The Normal People author's third book, Beautiful World, Where Are You , is finally here.
What can be said about Sally Rooney that hasn't been said before? She's the voice of her generation ; she's overrated ; she inspired a garish bucket hat that is at once a status symbol and fodder for Twitter memes . Rooney, the millennial success story, seems to be a conversation topic far more engrossing than the content of her two (soon to be three) best-selling novels, the latter of which was adapted into a hit Hulu series. And yet, Rooney is completely uninterested in the discourse surrounding herself — in fact, she appears to be increasingly confounded by it. "Why should someone have to disclose facts about their upbringing and family life to the public, just because they've written a novel?" she asks The Guardian .
Though she may beg to differ, Rooney's third book — an acquisition readers and writers alike have circled voraciously since its announcement last January — may be her most overtly personal work yet.
Beautiful World, Where Are You follows two longtime friends in their late 20s. Alice is a successful novelist who bristles against the fame her career has brought her, criticizing the culture of celebrity and describing those who actively seek publicity as "deeply psychologically ill." Eileen is an assistant editor at a literary magazine who struggles to connect with her family and feels she hasn't achieved enough in her 29 years. In a series of cerebral emails sent back and forth, Alice and Eileen parse their respective relationships with Felix (a warehouse-worker Alice met on Tinder) and Simon (Eileen's childhood friend and occasional lover) and their place in an ever-decaying world.
The novel feels like a natural progression for Rooney and the characters she creates. Beautiful World 's cast is as quintessentially analytical as Normal People 's Marianne or Conversations with Friends's Frances, but the stakes have changed. The freedom afforded by 20-somethingdom is slipping and the world looks different than it used to. Alice and Eileen are forced to confront the questions of forever in a way that Rooney's protagonists haven't before. It's hard not to imagine this falling in line with Rooney's own artistic and personal progression, from a 26-year-old debut novelist to a more seasoned and perhaps cynical literary figure at 30.
As someone drifting ever-nearer to 30 myself, Beautiful World resonated in a way that Rooney's earlier works did not. That said, teetering on the cusp of your thirties is hardly a prerequisite for reading the novel. Though it's not hard to see how two white women's grievances about their careers and love lives (particularly one who is admittedly wealthy and famous) could be perceived as whiny or indulgent, Rooney lays the groundwork to defy that reading. There's a weight, an urgency that grounds Alice and Eileen's narratives, and it's the same weight and urgency every one of us has been living with for the past 18 months, or four years and 10 months, rather (but who's counting!). The panic we've endured since the mid-2010s, the fear and uncertainty, pervades Alice and Eileen's conversations.
Beautiful World is timely, of course. But unlike many pandemic-era works, the novel doesn't exploit the events of our "new normal" or the collective trauma that has resulted from it. Like every Rooney novel, Beautiful World is at its core a character study — we learn and grow with Alice and Eileen (and to a lesser extent, Felix and Simon) over the course of 353 cinematically rendered pages. Who will play them in the Hulu series? I found myself asking. Because if there's one thing we can count on in this chaotic world, it's that Sally Rooney's new novel will be the epicenter of the next cultural conversation.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is available now ($17.59 hardcover, $14.99 Kindle; amazon.com ).
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Phil Vine reviews Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, published by Allen and Unwin
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 2, 2021, Section
Her latest book, however, has triggered me and I feel, in my small way, that I have a word to say about this publication, so I have decided to dedicate a s
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 many ways, this book, a work of both philosophy and romantic tragicomedy about the ways people love and hurt one another, is exactly the type of book one would expect Rooney to write out of the political environment of the past few years
In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Alice is a novelist who meets Felix, a warehouse worker, from Tinder
Though she may beg to differ, Rooney's third book — an acquisition readers and writers alike have circled voraciously since its announcement last January — may be her most overtly personal work yet