Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021) by Sally Rooney

As I talked about in my previous post, I missed the Sally Rooney hype the first time around in 2017, and it was the release of this novel that got me a little more interested in her. I started with Conversations with Friends, but then decided to dive right into Beautiful World, Where Are You because I was indeed seduced by the insane marketing push and a bit of FOMO. It took me a while to read because of, well, life, but I finally finished it this week. Looking back on the notes I made while reading, my opinion changed a bit as it went on – I liked it more at the beginning and thought that there were some really interesting ideas in Alice and Eileen’s emails, but I think my enjoyment waned as the book progressed. 

In general I liked the use of the email conversations as they provided some extra context for Alice and Eileen’s stories and their actions and decisions – I found this particularly helpful when it came to Alice as throughout the book I was dumbfounded as to why she continued to see Felix, and what their attraction was beyond the physical. I also liked her discussion of the purpose of novels and how “the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world – packing it tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text.” This is kind of what Rooney is doing, except she puts the “truth” into the emails. They are ‘underneath’ the actual events of the novel. Rooney and Alice consider the futility of novels when there are so many problems in the world, but then Eileen argues that surely our own human relationships are actually what matter the most because they are the reason we fight to solve problems and we feel bad for other people – our loves and relationships are our redeeming feature. This was interesting and insightful; but after a while I tired of their high-minded philosophising and their blindness to the fact that they were both incredibly self-destructive and in many ways stopping themselves from being happy, and from loving and caring about other people. At first the emails served a purpose, but I think this got a little lost along the way. 

One thing I did find quite interesting was the role of sex throughout the book. I liked the fact that Rooney was quite open and explicit about sex, whether it’s romantic or not, instead of a more conventional ‘they went to bed…’ She did that sometimes, but then also had the graphic scenes where everything is described – even if there was sometimes more dialogue than was really believable. I found the power dynamics in the two couples quite intriguing – with Alice and Felix I felt that this was different to the rest of their relationship. When they’re talking (or arguing) they bounce off each other and the power goes back and forth, whereas when they’re having sex Alice seems happy to give up her power and be more vulnerable, with Felix being more dominant. And then there’s Eileen and Simon… obviously they have a very different dynamic and history to Alice and Felix, but I had mixed feelings about how their sexual dynamic – of Simon being very dominant – played into the rest of their relationship. Towards the end of the book they do finally discuss how he is always the one helping her, and how he does not discuss his feelings much with her. He holds the power in this way, and she is more vulnerable. The fact that this morphed into a vaguely dom/sub sexual dynamic was unexpected, and an intriguing choice from Rooney. I wondered what point she was trying to make or demonstrate with both the couples and these interplays of power. With Eileen and Simon it’s easier to surmise that the point is about patriarchy and the internalised nature of this and how it gets into romantic relationships. It struck me that this is also the main theme of her short story Mr Salary, and to a degree could be read into Frances and Nick’s relationship in Conversation with Friends.

Unlike with Conversations with Friends, I felt that that the discussion and depiction of mental health issues in this novel was actually not great. Alice was depicted as cold, selfish, and difficult, and though Eileen visited her ever day in the hospital she seemed resentful of this and wanted something in return. I was encouraged by Felix’s openness about his own mental health struggles, but then he still lacked sympathy for anyone else’s and was so cold and hurtful towards Alice. It was a very mixed bag, and I didn’t feel like any of it was that helpful.

The ending of Beautiful World, Where Are You was a bit too neat for me, and only served to reinforce my perception of Alice and Eileen as immature for their age. By the end I felt like I was too old for this story, which felt odd given that I’m in my early 30s and so is Sally Rooney, and so are the characters by the end. Maybe it’s my lack of patience with people who declare themselves to be communists, or who ever had any respect for Jeremy Corbyn. There was an element of this when I read Conversations with Friends, but that was redeemed by being unconventional and genuinely insightful, whereas I found the opposite to be true with this novel. Overall I found Beautiful World, Where Are You to be lacking in depth, insight, real innovation, and maturity. Which is a shame. But I probably will still read Normal People to compare. Like a few other reviewers I’ve read, I don’t always enjoy Rooney’s writing, but it is weirdly compulsive nonetheless.

*

Published in 2021 by Faber & Faber. I read the hardback first edition, pictured above.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery (affiliate links).

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