Beautiful World, Where Are You (which should really have a question mark at the end, if you ask me) is being hyped up as the must-read book of the Fall. Sally Rooney’s first two novels were both big hits, with Normal People going on to be adapted into a massively successful TV series. (The adaptation of her first novel, Conversations With Friends, will be released next year.)
Rooney herself is an unlikely superstar. The self-professed Marxist seems uncomfortable with fame and ambivalent about the financial windfall that comes from writing two big bestsellers before turning 30. Her youth is a constant source of fascination with the press, who seem eager to brand her as the voice of a generation.
Like both of her previous works, Beautiful World concerns itself with young people still working out their places in the world, as best they can. The protagonists here are a few years older, but still searching for love and meaning in a cruel, chaotic world. They are hampered in their searches by their own insecurities and inability to communicate with each other.
There are four central characters in Beautiful World. Alice Kelleher is a character who bears more than a faint resemblance to Rooney herself. Alice is a novelist who has written two bestsellers before turning 30, like Rooney, and is, like Rooney, a Marxist ambivalent about money and fame. As the novel starts she’s moved to the Irish countryside after spending some time in the hospital being treated for a nervous breakdown. She’s left behind her best friend Eileen in Dublin. Eileen works at a struggling literary magazine and barely makes enough money to make ends meet. She spent most of her twenties in a long-term relationship that fizzled out and now finds the life she had imagined for herself drifting out of sight.
Alice and Eileen communicate mainly through the lost form of communication known as the long email. They talk about anything and everything, from politics to aesthetics to the mysteries of Bronze Age history. But they also talk, sometimes cryptically and sometimes bluntly, about their own friendship and their relationships with the men in their life. Alice is dating Felix, who she met on Tinder. Felix seems woefully incompatible with her, but his charming directness has a way of disarming her in ways she can’t predict. Meanwhile, Eileen has been rekindling her relationship with a childhood friend named Simon, who seems perfect for her on paper but has trouble being emotionally vulnerable with her.
The plot of Beautiful World is fairly rudimental. In between emails, Alice and Eileen try to figure out where they stand with Felix and Simon. Alice invites Felix to go with her to a literary event in Rome. Eileen toys with the idea of asking Simon to be her date to her sister’s wedding. Eileen and Alice keep bringing up the idea of Eileen traveling to see Alice, but the trip keeps getting pushed back for one reason or another. Finally, when all four characters are under the same roof, some emotional bombshells are dropped and there’s some necessary fallout.
Frankly, it would be extremely difficult for any novel to live up to the hype surrounding Beautiful World, but as a fan of both of Rooney’s previous works I have to say that this did not quite live up to my expectations. Though there are some exquisite scenes in which Rooney shows off her prodigious talent, on the whole the story does not come out to much. To my mind, Rooney is so concerned with realism that she doesn’t produce an entertaining product. Too much is left to the reader to determine for themselves. Alice’s previous books are never described (which makes it all too easy to conflate the character with the author in the reader’s mind) and her strained relationship with her mother and brother is never explored. Felix and Simon’s family problems are alluded to as well, without ever being developed. Only Eileen’s sister and mother make any meaningful appearance within the text.
On the one hand it’s easy to understand what Rooney is thinking. Her characters aren’t talking about their problems because that’s not what people really do in real life. Alice and Eileen are best friends, after all, so presumably they don’t need to spell out for each other the exact fault lines of their mother-daughter relationships. But it’s still very frustrating for a reader to get to the end of a novel without really feeling like they understand the characters they’ve spent so much time with.
Rooney still has a tremendous gift for dialogue and for portraying intimacy in a way that feels real and particular to the characters. There are some very powerful moments in Beautiful World that are reminiscent of the best parts of Normal People and Conversations With Friends. But the lingering impression of Beautiful World, Where Are You is that whatever magic that made those first two novels work so spectacularly well is missing this time around.