Book Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

About the Book:

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a distribution warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend Eileen is getting over a break-up, and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.

Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young-but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

Published by Faber

Released 7th September 2021

My Thoughts:

Beautiful World, Where Are You is the much-anticipated new release by Sally Rooney, whose previous novel, Normal People, has literally taken the world by storm, both the novel and the TV series that was adapted from it. I will freely own up to being a Normal People fan, I loved it and I introduced my 19-year-old daughter to it when she was recently home on a uni study break and she devoured it within a day, looking up only briefly to say, “there’s more from her on your shelf, yeah?” How do you follow a novel like Normal People? Well, if you’re Sally Rooney, you do it with the blisteringly brilliant Beautiful World, Where Are You.

“Tenderly, it seemed almost painfully, they smiled at one another, saying nothing, and their questions were the same, am I the one you think about, when we made love were you happy, have I hurt you, do you love me, will you always.”

This is not Normal People 2.0, it’s a whole other beautifully meaningful novel that will surely have its own cult following by the end of September, if not before. Within a day of the novel being released, a wealth of articles could already be read online about it, and I spent some time reading through them, interested in the general thoughts about the new release. Ironically though, most of these articles focused more on Sally Rooney rather than the novel itself, her style, what she was trying to achieve with Beautiful World, Where Are You, and where she did or didn’t fall short with it. In other words, kind of wading into territory that Rooney herself writes of with regard to her character Alice, who is a twenty-something novelist struggling with what has been (two novels that have catapulted her into literary stardom) and what is to come (does she really want this life and if not, what is it that she does want).

“But then I thought: no, what we really have here is an example of a presumably normal and sane person whose thinking has been deranged by the concept of celebrity. An example of someone who genuinely believes that because she has seen my photograph and read my novels, she knows me personally – and in fact knows better than I do what is best for my life. And it’s normal! It’s normal for her not only to think these bizarre thoughts privately, but to express them in public, and receive positive feedback and attention as a result. She has no idea that she is, in this small limited respect, quite literally insane, because everyone around her is also insane in exactly the same way. They really cannot tell the difference between someone they have heard of, and someone they personally know. And they believe that the feelings they have about this person they imagine me to be – intimacy, resentment, hatred, pity – are as real as the feelings they have about their own friends. It makes me wonder whether celebrity culture has sort of metastasised to fill the emptiness left by religion. Like a malignant growth where the sacred used to be.”

I honestly loved this novel. It’s intensely deep, a portrait of friendship and love set against a backdrop of a world gone mad. Because it has, hasn’t it? We have a younger generation coming of age now in a dying world, one that is besieged by climate change and radicalism, riddled with a pandemic that just doesn’t want to budge, but rather, keeps evolving into more and more dangerous strains. This novel had a classic feel to it, firmly literary in its style and wholly character driven, largely preoccupied by said characters waxing lyrical about the state of the world and where they see themselves within it. It runs the risk of being self-absorbing but instead glows like a neo-contemporary literary masterpiece.

“When I look back on what we were like when we first met, I don’t think we were really wrong about anything, except about ourselves. The ideas were right, but the mistake was that we thought we mattered.”

Rooney’s signature style is immediately recognised but the structure of this novel differs from her previous work. We have alternating chapters of a sort, between Alice and Eileen, but the narration is not from their point of view. There is an omniscient third person narrator that allows us to know what is going on with each of the characters at the same time, almost like watching a television drama that utilises a split screen. It is amazing writing, the immense brilliance of which I cannot even hope to fully convey, but there are scenes where we see what is unfolding between each couple, line by line, switching between them. Probably sounds confusing here, but it’s not. It’s incredible and gives the reader this absolute sense of being within the orbit of all the characters, as though we are looking down over them, taking it all in, minute by minute. We are there, but also removed, at the same time.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say you work hard, because your job’s a laugh compared to mine. But you have a lot of people wanting things off you. And I just think, for all the fuss they make over you, none of them actually care about you one bit. I don’t know if anyone does.

As Felix watched her, his initial self-assurance, even sadistic triumph, changed gradually into something else, as if recognising too late his own misapprehension.”

This novel is brutally honest and filled to the brim with raw emotion. The characters love each other but are still sometimes cruel to each other – much like real life. Each of them is in pain to some degree, struggling through their days and nights, looking for something whilst not really knowing what it even is that they need or are missing. Rooney is a master of characterisation, the way she can convey so much through her dialogue, not just through what is said, but also what is left unsaid, communicated instead by a silence or a look. I feel like I always know what’s going on with Rooney’s characters, even if they aren’t aware of it themselves.

“I suppose I mean that children are coming anyway, and in the grand scheme of things it won’t matter much whether any of them are mine or his. We have to try either way to build a world they can live in.”

Returning to the structure of the novel, in between the alternating chapters are emails between Alice and Eileen. Long and luxurious emails that give a different sort of insight into who they are, both individually and to each other. I adored these emails, with their rambling philosophies and the type of honesty that can only be conveyed between very close friends and also, perhaps, in writing rather than face to face conversation. While Beautiful World, Where Are You has two love stories unfolding within it, it is the friendship between Alice and Eileen that is the true love story, the third love story and perhaps the most important one of the novel. This is where it wades back into classic literature feels, as a grand friendship novel, between two people who sometimes can’t live within each other’s orbit, but who can most definitely never live without the other.

“They looked at one another for a long moment without moving, without speaking, and in the soil of that look many years were buried.”

So, does Beautiful World, Where Are You live up to the anticipation? For me, most definitely. I loved it and will be waxing lyrical about it until the next Sally Rooney arrives to take its place.


20 thoughts on “Book Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

  1. Fantastic review! I’m so curious about this one, as both a reader and a writer. I love this line that you quoted: ‘It makes me wonder whether celebrity culture has sort of metastasised to fill the emptiness left by religion. Like a malignant growth where the sacred used to be.’ << yes! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You know, I’m really glad that these books are so popular. Personally, they’re not for me. I even tried to watch the TV series of Normal People but I didn’t care for it, so it looks like I’m not her target audience.

    Liked by 1 person

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