Book Review: Sally Rooney's BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU
Updated: Jul 8, 2022
The Irish writer who seems to have gotten the pulse of a certain millennial bracket has — with great care and convincing nonchalance — written characters who are quick to believe the worst in themselves, while keen to restore some semblance of moral order in a declining world. White, cerebral, upper-middle-class twenty-somethings carrying intellectual debates on what warrants being a working-class individual is not necessarily a recurring setting in Rooney’s books. Still, the likes of it have steadily become her identifier. A brand that is equal parts fascinating and vulnerable. A cult, as Vox calls it.
In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are reluctant participants of a fractured system that routinely upstages their sense of self. Once the toast of her college and currently an underpaid editor at a literary magazine, Eileen shares a frangible touch-and-go relationship with her childhood friend Simon, a political adviser to a left-wing organization in Dublin. Alice — a well-to-do author who moves into a seaside rectory to convalesce after a nervous breakdown — enters into an uneven relationship with Felix, an irascible warehouse worker she meets on a dating app.
A cinematic Ireland lends itself as a moody companion to these inconveniently self-aware characters. Their self-evaluation leans heavily on their conscience. And it’s not an obscure motif in the book. Felix once remarks to Eileen, “If you were a little bit stupider, you might have an easier life.”
Obsessions and deep curiosities closely interact with the internet culture in her latest, much like in her previous books. Eileen and Alice’s chapter-long email exchanges opine on everything from conservatism, Bronze Age to religion. But it could be argued on occasions, Rooney’s dissection of class privilege and eco-criticism do not blend seamlessly and border on being decorative — prized set pieces for her characters to graze and move along, granting the novel layers otherwise compromised by a veil-thin plot. However, it begets saying, any author's writing should not be burdened with a generation’s moral reckoning. One is allowed to discriminate the intensity of the subjects they address. Ultimately, what Rooney does best is hitting the sweet spots of a complex, melancholic romance. The sex in her books is tense, seismic, and refreshingly honest. Relationships are fraught with insecurities. The characters are convinced they are doomed. It’s a compelling concoction.
Ultimately, what she does best is hitting the sweet spots of a complex, melancholic romance. The sex in her books is tense, seismic, and refreshingly honest. Relationships are fraught with insecurities. The characters are convinced they are doomed. It’s a compelling concoction.
What stands out in Beautiful World, Where Are You is a lucid interpretation of happiness, arguably missing in her previous works. While Normal People was poignant and abound with necessary heartbreaks, her latest is warily hopeful. But hopeful, nonetheless.
One would be tone-deaf not to acknowledge Rooney as an exceedingly influential author. Her writing is succinct and polished. Her characters are miserable and riveting. The absence of dialogue tags is delightfully bleak. But the gripe some readers have with her success has nothing to do with her credibility as a writer, but the stature she has been afforded by revered publications in the West that reserve it for a select few — a select few white authors, that is. Not many authors of color get similar backing for their work from their publishers or media outlets. Even fewer are addressed as “the first great millennial author,” if at all.
As a woman of color in her late twenties, comfortably removed from the West, I do not feel Rooney’s storytelling represents the hits and misses of my life. And it is okay. It absolutely is. I devour her books with the same frantic passion of a white woman in Brooklyn with a New Yorker tote bag, a chai tea latte, and a penchant for status galleys. Her stories are needed, and her characters do represent most millennials. But then, not all. She did not even set out to represent all. And it is why the feverish media blitz crowning her as the literary poster child of my generation feels forced and undemocratic. A fact, I believe, Rooney observes as well.
But this is not to take away from her unique presence in the industry. Her celebrity is well-earned. But her second-hand branding remains disappointingly uninformed.
Hardcover, 356 pages. Published on September 7th 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.