Fans of Sally Rooney had a long wait after Normal People for a new novel, until 2021 provided the goods. Beautiful World, Where Are You was published last month and did not disappoint.
The book follows Alice, an acclaimed novelist struggling with her mental health and her best friend Eileen, who works for a literary magazine and is trying to overcome her latest heartbreak.
In true Rooney style, the story is divided between the protagonists. The narrative is spliced with email correspondence as this is how the women keep in touch with each other.
If you have read Rooney before, you will know not to expect a fast-paced plot-driven story. Instead, she sheds a light on modern Ireland and the hardships and triumphs that come with it.
Alice is introduced following the success of her latest book. Having just suffered a nervous breakdown, she has moved back to Ireland from New York to live in the countryside. Here, she meets Felix, a warehouse operative and it is through their relationship that Alice’s insecurities come to light.
What is intriguing is the similarities that can be drawn between the character of Alice and the author herself. Throughout the novel, Alice comments on the shortcomings of fame and how it was never her intention to become famous. She questions why it’s so important to synonymise an author with their work. It’s hard to imagine Sally Rooney’s reaction to her own success as much different to Alice’s.
Eileen’s character develops a little slower, as she recovers from cyber-stalking her ex and allows herself to fall in love with Simon, an older Catholic man she has known since she was a teenager. Eileen is a more realistic character, in my opinion, as she constantly battles with money anxieties and family troubles. She has a complicated relationship with her parents and her sister, Lola.
The climax comes when the four characters get together for a weekend at Alice’s house. Here, the true complexities of the women’s friendship are tested, while they blame each other for not being present enough in their friendship.
Critics of Rooney’s cite the emails in this novel as a nuisance. They are long-winded and allow the characters to indulge in commentaries on the Bronze Age, the collapse of human civilisation and how lives of easy consumption are made possible by the misery of millions. In my opinion, while these conversations are thought-provoking and informative, they can come across as condescending to the reader as like in all of her work, the protagonists are privileged white millennials.
However, there are many merits to this novel. It is culturally relevant as it is based in the backdrop of the Brexit/Trump era and contains an undercurrent of politics. Although the women are privileged characters, they are realistic as they fumble their way through their love lives and the complicated power dynamics in their relationships. They analyse and condemn the beauty industry and as usual in Rooney’s novels, they have communication issues.
A unique selling-point of the authors work is the way that the men are written – through the female gaze in a contemporary, authentic way. My favourite aspect of Rooney’s writing is the way she sets up scenes as if she is writing a play. A lot of the time she will describe a room in detail before or after a character enters/exits. I would recommend this novel if you’re looking for a fun romance read.