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.
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.
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.