Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber, $29.99
In the three years since Sally Rooney’s last novel, publishers have assured readers many times they have “the next Sally Rooney”. And yet, no new author has matched her sales or views of the TV adaptation of her work. Perhaps Rooney-esque is far more specific than just any old millennial novel.
Whether her style is to one’s taste, Sally Rooney is playing to her strengths in her new novel.Credit:Kalpesh Lathigra
Conversations with Friends and Normal People were romances quintessential of people’s twenties. Simple language and increasing romantic tension kept the reader turning the page. The literariness of her work lies not in its form, but the content. If what her characters talked about was Meg Ryan films as opposed to the general systems collapse of the late Bronze Age, and if Rooney herself didn’t come with her impressive accolade of European University Debating Champion and weren’t a Marxist, she may have been denigrated as writing only “chick lit”.
This is possibly why success has also spawned fervent dislike of her work.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is two romances. Alice is a successful novelist who’s recently moved to an Irish coastal town following a stint in a psychiatric ward. Felix, who has always lived in the town, works in a factory. He and Alice meet on Tinder and after only one date are testy with one another.
Eileen and Simon are childhood friends both living in Dublin. Eileen is reeling from a recent break-up that has left her wondering whether she is fundamentally unlovable. She first slept with Simon 10 years earlier, and they have revived their dalliance, despite Simon telling Eileen that he is seeing someone new.
Just like those of Frances and Nick in Conversations with Friends or Marianne and Connell in Normal People, the relationships seem doomed from the beginning. The point of difference being that the characters are trying to figure out what it is they want in a life partner.
The chapters alternate from one couple to the other, but intermingled are letters between Alice and Eileen, who are best friends. These letters are where the novel sings and Rooney shows a lack of restraint that is new to her work.
The scenes are narrated in the clipped and aloof style of her previous novels: “A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door. Her appearance was neat and tidy.” Several times the third-person narration reassures the reader, almost desperately, of its objectivity: “Nothing changed in her outward relationship to the world that would allow an observer to determine what she felt about what she saw.”
In contrast, Alice and Eileen’s letters flit from reflections on how it is that conservatism came to be associated with rapacious market capitalism, to the ills of a strapless dress, to their insecurities. It is the openness between the two that is new in Rooney’s work. Fittingly, as these characters have 10 years on the protagonists of the earlier novels, they have let go of the social pretensions of university-educated twenty-somethings.
Alice’s lamentations about literary fame – “I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things, having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph on the internet and reading comments about myself” – and contemporary writers who’ve “been sitting with white linen tablecloths laid out in front of them and complaining about bad reviews since 1983” are delightfully scandalous. And while a reader should respect the demarcation between author and character, it is hard to imagine why Rooney would write these things were it not to vent about the pitfalls of her own success.
The ‘Beautiful World’ the title is searching for refers both to the rapidly degrading planet that each woman is mourning and to the beauty of the connections these characters are searching for in one another. As Eileen reflects, “When we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity.”
For the most part, this novel takes place in a pre-COVID world, and while reading I reflected on Eileen’s thesis in the context of the pandemic. While life on earth has become objectively harder, messages of self-care assure us not to overburden ourselves with what we can’t control, but to focus on ourselves and those closest to us.
When COVID arrives in the final two chapters, it would seem that Rooney has reached the same conclusion. While radical shifts in the way we live are necessary to survive in the long term, in the short term, maybe all we can do is pull those closest to us closer still. And this, in a way, is beautiful.
While local writers who explore climate anxiety – Alice Robinson, Kate Mildenhall, James Bradley – paint apocalyptic futures, true to form this is a romance, with thematic content inserted into the characters’ dialogue.
Whether or not her style is to one’s taste, Rooney is playing to her strengths. And while now and then the ideas exchanged between Alice and Eileen can read like a university essay, not only is Rooney good at writing these, you can sense she’s enjoying herself.
She is also skilled at increasing tension between characters in unexpected ways. Alice reflects on her relationship with Felix that “There is no obvious path forward by which any relation between us can proceed”. Maybe somewhat on the nose, but when the four characters come together in the final act, I had to admit, I hadn’t seen where that was going.
If you weren’t a fan of the previous novels, this book probably won’t convert you. Nor will it please readers who want writers to explore new content or styles in each work.
In one of her letters Alice reflects on the joy of writing novels: “I need to feel that my life has some kind of centre, somewhere for my thoughts to return and rest.” This could also describe the particular comfort that her readers get from a Rooney novel. I received my copy on the first day of Melbourne’s fifth lockdown. When a friend sent a message checking in on me, I replied with a photo of the book – I’ll be fine.
Allee Richards’ Small Joys of Real Life is published by Hachette at $32.99. Beautiful World, Where Are You is published on Tuesday.
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