Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Beautiful World

For fans of the best-selling 2018 novel Normal People and the binge-worthy 2020 Hulu TV series that stemmed from it, there’s perhaps no other book more anticipated in 2021 than Irish writer and Millennial mastermind Sally Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You.

The question is: Is it worthy of all the prepublication buzz? With a few major caveats, you bet.

The plot, though delightfully dirty at times and compulsively readable, is nothing to write home about — mostly because it covers much of the same ground as Rooney’s previous two books. Like her 2017 debut, Conversations With Friends, Beautiful World revolves around two Irish couples who jump in and out of bed, get together and break up, and talk incessantly about their character flaws or why they either are or aren’t made for each other.

Take the strained but obvious love connection between 29-year-old Eileen and 34-year-old Simon — a strikingly handsome childhood friend with a gentle spirit and a penchant for Jesus who’s described as having a “messiah complex.” The similarity to Marianne and Connell’s relationship in Normal People is so striking that I had a hard time not picturing the two TV actors in my head (or in bed) when reading Eileen and Simon’s scenes.

With Eileen’s best friend, Alice, and her unlikely Tinder beau, Felix, the string between the two is a little more curious, which makes the dalliance more interesting, if not always entirely convincing. Unlike Alice — a privileged, successful novelist — Felix hails from the working class. As a self-proclaimed bisexual and warehouse clerk who generally takes events and conversations at face value, he offers a bemused perspective on Alice-and-friends’ navel-gazing and hyper-liberal, even Marxist, rants that keep the novel’s bourgeois tendencies in check.

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Sally Rooney is the author of Beautiful World, Where Are You

But though it admittedly feels wickedly satisfying to be caught once again in Rooney’s web of friendship-courtship entanglements, the pining glances, wounded squabbles and even the raunchy, sexy scenes aren’t the reasons to read Beautiful World, no matter how enticing — or rote — they are. Instead, it’s what Rooney does with the other chapters — probing letters between Alice and Eileen — that feels so experimental and exciting.

In one, Alice writes to Eileen about climate politics: “Just look at what conservatives make of the environment: their idea of conservation is to extract, pillage and destroy.” In another, she unloads about the writing world (wink wink): “If novelists wrote honestly about their own lives, no one would read novels — and quite rightly! Maybe then we would finally have to confront how wrong, how deeply philosophically wrong, the current system of literary production really is — how it takes writers away from normal life, shuts the door behind them, and tells them again and again how special they are and how important their opinions must be.”

Of course, diary entries or letters between characters are not a new literary device. Many authors have used them as a means to get at the core of characters’ inner worlds or to move the story along.

But in Rooney’s hands, they read as though she’s using the book as a platform to raise questions or to mouth off willy-nilly about the world’s injustices and her own personal injuries — climate change and haywire consumerism, the 24-hour news cycle, celebrity culture that has “metastasized to fill the emptiness left by religion,” the “self-congratulatory” publishing world — come what may.

I don’t agree with everything Rooney has to say in Beautiful World — I’m sure harsher, headier critics will have a field day with some of it, too. Still, I found some of Alice and Eileen’s astute/scathing/snarky opinions about the state of things to be quite refreshing and accurate without being overly derogatory or nasty — and to that I say, “Hallelujah.”

Beautiful World, Where Are You
By Sally Rooney
(FSG; 368 pages; $28)

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 6, 2021)