Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You

Sally Rooney is back and for sale. Her third novel, Beautiful World, Where are You, came out yesterday at the peak of a marketing campaign that seems to be more focused on distributing swag and “experiences” than getting books into hands. For an author who once said “I am very skeptical of the way in which books are marketed as commodities…almost like accessories which people can fill their homes with,” it is hard not to wonder if Rooney is living through her own personal apocalypse as bright yellow Beautiful World bucket hats are sent out to celebrities for photo ops. 

Beautiful World is centered on the lives and emails of two women about to turn thirty: Alice and Eileen. Alice is a novelist who, after recently being propelled to fame, spends much of her time wondering why authors’ lives “must be picked over in lurid detail for no reason.” Eileen works at a literary magazine and describes herself as a “little idiot who can’t do anything for [herself].” Eileen is in love with Simon, a Christian man six and a half years her senior who she has known since childhood, and Alice is dating Felix, who has chosen to “be a dickhead and enjoy [his] life” and most of the time isn’t very nice to her, though at least he has a good singing voice. 

At the novel’s outset, Alice is living away from Dublin in a secluded, rented house she is considering purchasing. She recently recovered from a stay in hospital for psychiatric care and communicates with her best friend (it seems) wholly by email. Before the two friends can reunite—and against Eileen’s feeble attempt at suggesting Alice should take more time off—Alice jets off to Rome for publicity events and brings Felix with her despite the two having just met on a dating app. In Dublin, Eileen answers Alice’s emails. She goes to work. On bus rides and in bed she tries to discern if she and Simon can ever really make it as a couple. Simon is reserved and employed; he sometimes travels for work and is featured on the evening news. He is also not sure if it is possible to actually be with Eileen—the fundamental question of all Rooney relationships. Except for Eileen’s soon-to-be-married sister and the brother Felix is avoiding, little attention is paid to anyone outside of the quartet. The focus rests on the two pairs attending parties, texting each other, looking up their exes on the Internet, and having sex.

The greatest strength of the novel is Rooney’s play with distance. She brings the reader so close to her characters—we are inside of their inboxes again, after all—only to hold back at key moments that, if elucidated, could unlock some of the mystery of the will-they-or-won’t-they engine. Near the end of the book, when all four leads have gathered at Alice’s place, Eileen and Simon have a fight which ends with: “She put her arms around his neck then, turning toward him where they sat on the side of the bed, pressing her face to his throat, and she whispered something only he could hear.” This denial of disclosure becomes a quintessential Rooney move. If the reader thinks they are going to get anything told to them straight, they are mistaken. Conversations about class, sex, friendship, and love are fluttering curtains in front of the open window blowing in longing for deep, psychological connection. 

Almost every second chapter is an email. Structurally, this means longer paragraphs; narratively, this means more interiority. It’s not as bad as it sounds: Rooney is good at email. Fans of Normal People would argue that Connell and Marianne’s online chats are the hottest part of the book (if you like to pine—since you are reading a Sally Rooney novel, you must). But, no matter how well an email is written, every second chapter is a bit much. The significance of the emails between Alice and Eileen—which are long, thoughtful and frequent—is undercut by the mean things they have to say to each other when they finally meet up again in person. This deflation makes it harder to believe that the emails meant much to anyone except the individual writer herself. Perhaps Rooney is commenting on what it means to be online and how textual closeness doesn’t always translate to good hugs. Mostly it’s just sort of embarrassing.

Of course, there is also sex. The well-placed whimpering and simple utterances of “yes” are exciting, but what the characters in Beautiful World seem to want more than answers to the existential questions of their lives or a good romp is to be held without reserve in a quiet moment. It’s what makes the exchange between Eileen and Simon in bed feel so monumental. Here is the evolution from the devastating “ecstatic wretchedness” that finished Conversations with Friends, Rooney’s debut. The magnetism that pulls her characters together as they fail again and again to stay apart in this book is left private in something only Simon hears.

In an early email to Alice, Eileen notes that “most attempts to make sense of our present historical moment turn out to be essentially gibberish.” To make sense of the Sally Rooney experience will surely result in only more of the same. What is there to say of the marketing ploys of pop-up shops and coffee trucks accompanying Beautiful World’s release? At the same time, to speak exclusively of the book is to ignore the ferocious tendency of fans and critics alike to make Rooney into an emblem, to give her another title of best or worst millennial something and link again to the essay she wrote for The Dublin Review. Flattening Rooney onto the page results in valid but not that interesting comparisons between the real author and the imagined Alice. To fantasize the cover without Rooney’s name forces the audience (and it is not just readers) to confront the intersection of spectacle and literature. Will the Rooney Funko Pop be sold this holiday season?

Beautiful World will feel familiar to Rooney fans because of the pangs of longing, email exchanges, and haircuts with bangs featured throughout. The surprise comes in the novel’s closing email, where Eileen writes to Alice about refusing to be afraid of her own body in the face of climate change. If the sense of optimism feels pat, it is because readers have come to know the twinge of pain underscoring even the happiest moments of the author’s past protagonists. But there is no irony in the earnestness of this novel’s close. Rooney announces the beautiful world is here, and we are in it. Yes, everything is covered in plastic! But we still love our friends! Eileen responds in the final email: “I know in a thin rationalist way that what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense. But I feel it, I feel it, and I know it to be true.” It’s not ecstatic or wretched; yet, we too can believe. 

About the author

Stephanie Philp teaches in the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia. You can read her work at www.msphilp.com and follow her on Twitter @msphilp.

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