Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sally Rooney, Setting

‘Beautiful World, Where are You’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 337 pages; 2021.

Here’s an understatement for you. Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where are You, arrived with a lot of fanfare.

Her American publisher produced a bucket hat and a load of other merchandise, a clever marketing exercise that warranted the attention of an entire article in GQ magazine, and proof copies handed out in some jurisdictions came with strict embargos. Advance reader copies sold for huge amounts prior to publication.

As much as I liked (not loved) her previous two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, I was prepared to wait for the hype to die down before buying the new one. But then I had a cold rush of blood to the head, made a spur-of-the-moment purchase and settled down to read. And then I kept reading. And reading. And within the space of a weekend, I had finished it — and decided it was excellent.

Builds on previous work

Beautiful World, Where are You builds on the strengths of Rooney’s two earlier novels, but it’s not necessarily more of the same: the protagonists feel older and are grappling with issues more pertinent to women about to hit their thirties, but even the structure of the book, and the way it is plotted, is more mature.

It’s not perfect (what novel is?), but it’s entertaining and there’s a certain irony at play because one of the key characters is a famous author who is young and Irish and, well, it’s hard not to see Rooney having a pop at the ridiculousness of her own situation and the machinations of the publishing industry which has turned her into the literary star she is today.

The story is clever and playful, but it’s also melancholy and bittersweet. And, unusually for a Rooney novel, it ends on a happy note.

The plot

There’s not much of a plot other than an exploration of how life plays out for two young women, both of whom are unhappy with their situations, over a short period of time. It focuses on their personal growth through the romantic relationships they develop and charts the ups and downs of those relationships.

It focuses on two women in their late twenties who are best friends: Alice is a successful novelist; Eileen is an editorial assistant on a literary magazine.

Alice is recovering from a nervous breakdown and has decamped to the countryside, living in a house she’s borrowed from friends. She has recently met a local boy, Felix, a packer in a warehouse, via a dating app. It’s clear the two come from opposite ends of the wealth spectrum, but they are patient and kind, and somehow their relationship — platonic at first before morphing into something sexual — works even if it takes them a long time to fully open up to one another.

Eileen, who lives in Dublin, has recently broken up with her live-in boyfriend, but a family friend (and someone she has known since childhood), Simon, has crossed her path again after a long absence and there’s something about the security he offers as an older man in a settled job that attracts her. There’s an age gap between them and a failure for either party to properly commit (Simon, for instance, still sees other people), but they regularly meet up for sex and chit-chat.

Slow build-up

The two couples don’t come together until late in the novel when Alice invites Eileen and Simon to stay for a weekend. Before this happens, Rooney allows us to get to know her protagonists intimately. We understand the prickly nature of Alice’s character, for instance, and her desire to keep people at arm’s length. We realise that Eileen craves affection and security, but struggles with the idea that a friend could also be a sexual partner.

And we come to understand the intelligence of both women, their innermost thoughts and beliefs spilled out across heavily detailed email correspondence that makes up alternate chapters between the main narrative.

Prose wise, the early parts of the novel are lean, stripped back, almost pedestrian. Later, particularly after the couples meet, Rooney’s writing takes on a more lyrical quality. Her sentences lengthen, the adjectives arrive, the prose practically sings off the page.

Meanwhile, the emails, from both parties, are academic in tone, complex in thought and heavy on detail. Sometimes they feel like Wikipedia entries that have been shoehorned in to make political points. But the emails add to the tonality of the novel, giving it a richer depth, adding colour where otherwise we might only see how the women act rather than what they think. It’s a clever device.

Misunderstandings and miscommunication

As with Rooney’s previous work, there’s a lot of sex in the story. But it’s kinder, gentler sex than the type often depicted in Conversations with Friends, for instance. There’s still pain and heartache and misunderstandings between lovers. Eileen and Simon are especially infuriating in their inability to actually discuss what it is they want to happen long term, but, on the whole, the ups and downs described here all feel, well, normal.

And the conversations, often awkward, occasionally painful but always honest, are evocative and real. And, as ever with a Rooney novel, it’s often the things that are left unsaid that are the most revealing.

But happily, I don’t think it’s too much of a plot spoiler to reveal that the characters in Beautiful World, Where are You, do, in fact, find the beautiful world for which they’ve been looking… it makes a nice change.

21 thoughts on “‘Beautiful World, Where are You’ by Sally Rooney”

  1. So you are not going to be the one who says “The Emperor has no clothes”. Actually I thought ‘Conversations with Friends’ and ‘Normal People’ were both very fine but somehow want to read other authors now.

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    1. It seems to be very fashionable to slag her off at the moment. But I thought this was an enjoyable novel with a lot to unpick. I’ve really only focused on the surface of things. There’s a lot of stuff here about careers and the biological clock and marriage and city living versus rural living and art and literature and socialism and capitalism and climate change and all kinds of ISSUES. I think she has really matured as a writer. Structurally I thought it excellent and I loved how her prose changed in line with her protagonist’s internal growth.

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  2. Yours is the first blogger review I’ve read, Kim, and I’m glad to find it’s a positive one. Rooney’s a sitting target for many at the moment so I’ve avoided press reviews. Her previous two were both slow-burners for me but I was impressed by the way she captured that awkward communication and struggle to find your way that often characterises early adult life. Good to hear that her writing has continued to develop.

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    1. It’s funny. I thought the blogosphere would be swamped by these reviews but I haven’t seen any either. It’s fashionable to have a go at her, it seems, so I’ve avoided press reviews too but I did listen to a New York Times podcast with Brandon Taylor that was very positive and sold me on the idea that I should read it.

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  3. I listened to the Backlisted podcast yesterday where this book was highly rated – the hosts of the show are very independent minded and dont do hype so their assessment so I trust their judgement. Still not sure she is for me though, I read Normal People and was underwhelmed but I wondered if that was because I’m not that close in age to her protagonists,

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    1. Oh, that’s interesting to know it has won the support of Backlisted. I’ve listened to a couple of their podcasts and I have followed both on Twitter for years. I’m not anywhere the target audience for this novel (I’m about 25 years too old) but I work with a lot of people who are in the right age group so maybe that helps. But I think you either like Rooney’s work or you don’t 🤷🏻‍♀️

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  4. I’m sorry, I read the first para and nearly convinced myself I could read a review without spoiling the book, But I loved Normal People (on your recommendation from memory) and, to a lesser extent, Conversations, and I’ll probably buy Beautiful World today or tomorrow. I’ll come back, promise.

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      1. Bought it Friday, read it over the weekend and reviewed it today (Mon). Loved it! I thought the romances were well enough done, and yes, in-line with her current age, she (Alice/Sally) was very cool about all the fame and the million just sitting in the bank, and I thought the philosophising was really well done.

        Alice discusses the difficulty of stepping back up to the plate to write a third, after dashing off one and two (especially two!) but I think now that Rooney will settle down to being a very fine writer indeed.

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        1. Glad you liked it. Hard not to see Alice as being a thinly veiled version of Rooney herself. Funnily enough, I went to a reader event she did in London a few years back (must have been for Normal People) and I immediately thought she wasn’t very likeable!

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    1. Strangely I think there’s been more hype before than after because I have not seen a single review of this on any of the lit blogs I follow. Maybe everyone thought the same thing … that they would wait for the hype to die down. 😂

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  5. I didn’t realize she had another novel out besides Normal People, but I have to say that NP didn’t really live up to the hype. It seemed juvenile in its subject matter and the behavior of the protagonists.

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    1. You didn’t know? Presumably, you are (very sensibly) not on social media, then, because it has been EVERYWHERE since at least May this year when the cover was revealed and influencers boasted they had ARCs. If you didn’t like Normal People, chances are you won’t like this one either – although the protagonists are more mature and struggling with situations that are relatively universal. And there’s an ongoing issue about writers who become famous and don’t live up to the hype!

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