Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Calling Sally Rooney’s third novel (in only four years) highly anticipated doesn’t quite cut it. Thanks to the immense global success of both Conversations with Friends and Normal People, which topped bestseller charts and spawned film and TV adaptations, the young Irish writer is kind of a big deal. She’s has been called a great millennial novelist; her character-driven studies of class, sex and relationships are witty, cerebral and utterly compelling. And if you’re a fan, eagerly looking forward to her latest – well, Beautiful World, Where Are You is quite simply as good as you’re hoping it will be (dare I say even better).
On the surface, Beautiful World, Where Are You plays right into the Rooney formula. The central friendship explored is between Alice and Eileen; both in their late 20s, thin, White and university educated. Alice is a successful novelist recovering from a nervous breakdown in a small seaside town, where she’s started dating Felix. Back home in Dublin, Eileen is working at a literary magazine and questioning her relationship with a childhood friend, Simon. Alice and Eileen write long emails to each other: updates on their lives interwoven with musings on culture, climate change and politics (post-Brexit, pre-Covid).
The form and structure of this novel is what sets it apart from Rooney’s earlier work. The epistolary emails intimately illustrate how Alice and Eileen are feeling (or how they wish to be perceived by each other, at the very least). However, these emails are offset by alternating chapters written in the third person. Here, by Rooney’s deft hand, the reader observes the actions of these four characters from a cool distance. We eavesdrop on their conversations (Rooney’s dialogue is as engaging as any great TV script) but are denied any omniscient insights into their internal state. The contrast between chapters feels like switching between coolness and heat, symbolising so much about how humans interact with one another and creating a narrative propulsion that builds to a pitch-perfect conclusion.
Finishing Beautiful World, Where Are You left me with an ache – I immediately wanted to start this novel again from the beginning. Rooney fans will not be disappointed, and anyone else curious about this month’s most talked-about book is in for a treat.