The Irish novelist Sally Rooney turned 30 in February. For the past several years she has enjoyed the kind of worldwide success no writer with serious literary intentions could ever have banked on. Her hotly anticipated third book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, has just been published, following the bestselling Normal People from 2018 and her debut, Conversations with Friends, the previous year. In 2020, Hulu ran the BBC’s glossy 12-part dramatic series based on Normal People, which vastly expanded the audience for Rooney’s careful, mournful fiction. Some breathless commentators have likened her to Jane Austen, able to portray the dynamics of small groups in a way that exposes the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of society. But that misses the mark. Rooney’s prose is not particularly humorous, nor does she rely on gentle irony. She tells stories about love affairs between young women and young-ish men not to make wider points, but to capture the way thoughtful young women like herself experience the modern moment. She describes brilliantly the melancholy mindset of Millennial women, the generation now aged 25 to 40—particularly their at times overwhelming sense of fragility and alienation, their preoccupations with gender politics and the future of the planet, and, underneath it all, an age-old longing for intimacy.
Rooney takes her characters on satisfying journeys, but along the way the reader has to wade through a great deal of tedious self-hatred and self-involvement as expressed by the brainy, introverted, privileged young white women she writes about. They invite men to hurt them, they’re ambivalent about ambition, they are obsessed with who is a victim and who an oppressor. Where is the gumption, initiative, and self-confidence so prized by women who came of age in the last third of the 20th century? Scant on the ground in Rooney’s latest offering, as in her previous novels. Beautiful World, Where Are You is a colder, more difficult novel to engage with than her others—a deliberate response, one senses, to the author’s unlikely celebrity. Rooney appears to be resisting becoming a publishing commodity, a commercially minded, reliably reader-pleasing writer of popular fiction. Instead, with this new book, she challenges her audience to follow as she examines, often at clinical remove, the fates of two fairly unlikeable female protagonists. Only the lively concluding chapters make the novel truly worthwhile.
One of the two main characters, Alice, is a successful young Irish novelist who has been paid ridiculous sums of money for her work by an American publishing house. Unlike Rooney herself—recently married to her longtime partner—Alice is single, and she experiences a mental breakdown in the wake of her success. As the book begins, she is out of the hospital and has rented a large, isolated house by the sea in the west of Ireland. There, she meets, via the dating app Tinder, a local man named Felix, who has a decidedly nonglamorous job as a packer in an Amazon-like shipping center.
Meanwhile, back in Dublin, Alice’s best friend from college, Eileen, is drifting through life as a poorly paid assistant editor at a literary magazine. As she approaches the age of 30, Eileen feels in grave doubt about her chances for happiness. She has recently broken up with one boyfriend, Aidan, and pines after Simon, a man five years older, to whom she has felt attracted since her early teenage years.
Having worked successfully in the first person (Conversations with Friends) and the close third (Normal People), Rooney here narrates the action in alternating chapters and voices. To start, we witness the awkward first date between Alice and Felix, related as if by an impassive video camera. The next chapter is an email Alice writes to Eileen describing her state of mind, her current political musings, and, then, very briefly, her meeting with Felix. He “absolutely despised me,” she recounts. Chapter 3 goes back to the camera perspective, as Eileen works at the office and thinks about her ex, Aidan, and her crush, Simon, followed by a fourth chapter in which Eileen writes an email to Alice about her fears of civilization collapsing, the futility of political action, and the trauma of catching sight of Aidan by chance in the street. Eileen concludes, in peak Rooney-esque despair: “It’s so hard to see the point sometimes, when the things in life I think are meaningful turn out to mean nothing, and the people who are supposed to love me don’t.”
Rooney follows this oscillating structure for most of the novel, sustaining the impersonal narration of the action chapters, with occasional agile swoops into the point of view of one character or another. She wisely regards the emails as fundamentally performative but still uses them to reveal, at great length, the agonies the two women endure as they try to reconcile their expectations for their lives with the way events are actually panning out. Both women indulge in a type of abstract theorizing about recent history typical of university debaters. (Rooney was ranked number one on the European debate circuit while a student at Trinity College, Dublin.) Alice posits that all instinct for beauty that human beings once possessed was lost when the Berlin Wall came down. Eileen believes that civilization tipped into darkness when plastics became “the most widespread material in existence” in 1976, apparently.
Some of their ruminating, however, is poignant in a way that is not generationally time-stamped 2021. Along with the vivid final section—in which our two heroines are handed the contentment they deserve—it’s these reflections that make Beautiful World, Where Are You worthy of our attention. Reflecting on sex, Alice writes: “It seems to me we walk around all the time feeling these absurdly strong impulses and desires, strong enough to make us want to ruin our own lives and sabotage our marriages and careers but nobody is really trying to explain what the desires are, or where they come from.”
It was ever thus, ladies.
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