Few books are awarded as much attention as a Sally Rooney novel. Arguably, the Irish writer’s much-anticipated Beautiful World, Where Are You has been promoted to an even greater extent than 2018’s Normal People, with the publishing strategy boasting all the trappings laid out for big-hitters like Margaret Atwood and JK Rowling: bookstores opening early, a fervid social media campaign, and in some countries the lure of a beefed-up special edition and a free gift with every purchase. If Rooney wasn’t considered in the same illustrious ranks beforehand – and she almost certainly was – there’s no denying her appeal now.
A lot of talk is made of Rooney being a ‘millennial writer’, which perhaps means less that she represents all millennials everywhere – a hard ask indeed – and more that her writing, with its preoccupation with relationships, sex, politics and the environment, embodies many of the concerns pondered by young people today. With that in mind, Beautiful World is undoubtedly a book for the now, both in its depiction of modern life (social media, house parties, prevalence of mental health issues) and ideas (market capitalism, gendered division of labour, feminism, beauty standards and much else besides).
The novel’s plot, such as it is, depicts the evolution of two relationships, one between Alice and Felix, the other between Eileen and Simon. More than anything, the four characters are defined by contrast: Felix, who works at a warehouse, is a self-confessed “dickhead” and starkly different from the more thoughtful Simon, a left-wing political staffer and devout Christian; Eileen, an editor at a literary magazine, is more reserved than the forthright Alice, a published author who has spent time in a psychiatric ward. The parallels, whether designed or coincidental, are clear between Alice’s success as a young novelist and Rooney’s own public career in recent years, even as the latter shines a self-aware light on the whole situation. (When Felix asks what her books are about, Alice says, “Oh, I don’t know… people.” “That’s a bit vague,” comes Felix’s reply. “What kind of people do you write about, people like you?”)
The novel is partly epistolary, with a series of emails exchanged by Alice and Eileen interspersed throughout the text. It’s in these letters that the ideas bleed through, while modern dating, in all its awkwardness and sensuality – there are half a dozen sex scenes in the book – is fully on show in the narrated sections. The decision to tell those sections in the third person enables the point of view to shift back and forth across and within scenes, providing a fuller picture of what each character is thinking but losing none of the closeness of observation and depth of feeling for which Rooney’s writing is known. It’s that detailing of gestures, movements and facial expressions that makes Beautiful World, like its predecessors, so distinctive. She depicts the minutiae of life in quietly introspective fashion: “[It] was impossible to decipher … whether it was something shared between them or something about which they felt differently. Perhaps they didn’t know themselves … and the work of making meaning was still going on.”
The neat segregation of epistle and narration is a matter of personal preference: if you enjoyed the intellectual detours of Rooney’s previous novels, you could very well appreciate the expanded focus on such diversions in Beautiful World; if not, then I’m not sure why you’re reading a Rooney novel to start with. Part of the appeal of Rooney’s writing is the relatability of her characters – they don’t necessarily do much, but they sure go through a gamut of emotions. If nothing else, the intercutting of perspectives will lend itself nicely to the inevitable television adaptation of the novel, to accompany last year’s adaptation of Normal People and the upcoming Conversations with Friends.
In the hands of another writer, Beautiful World might seem peculiarly plotless and insubstantial. Indeed, a casual reader might be removed from the story by its intellectual diversions, but avid followers of Rooney’s work (Rooneyists? Rooneyites?) will no doubt delight in the ups and downs of the relationships portrayed within. And, if you take the name away and consider the work on its own, there’s an admirable lyricism and thrum to the prose.
Throw Sally Rooney’s name into a search engine and you’ll be bombarded with an assortment of reviews, interviews and opinion pieces, some bemoaning what they consider another overrated release, others praising the author’s literary style or enduring popularity. Hers are stories that depict a certain milieu and won’t appeal to everyone, but there’s no denying her writing has become a global phenomenon.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is out now from Faber & Faber.