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Beautiful World, Where Are You review: Rooney lowers the temperature in novel of big ideas

Beautiful World, Where Are You’ by Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber

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Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney

It isn’t a millennial love story. It’s two millennial love stories.

Alice, a writer, falls in love with Felix, who works in a warehouse. Meanwhile Eileen, a literary editor, falls for Simon, an older parliamentary adviser. The couples flirt. They sleep together. They have minor crises. They find out who they are.

Sally Rooney territory, obviously. But if the emotional temperature of Conversations with Friends and Normal People was medium-cool, in Beautiful World, Where Are You it tracks closer to zero, at least for the first three quarters of the book. (In the last quarter, things warm up emotionally and the book sort of collapses.)

The novel alternates between chapters composed in a chilly third-person objective mode and chapter-length emails between Alice and Eileen, who became intimate friends in college and who are doing their best to carry that intimacy into their uncertain late 20s.

The third-person chapters subject the characters’ fortunes to a deadpan gaze. The emails — by far the best bits of the book — allow Alice and Eileen to talk about ideas.

What does it mean to believe in God? Is our civilisation about to collapse? What is sex for? Has the literary novel become irrelevant?

To Sally Rooney’s enormous credit, she has not bothered to pretend that she is not Sally Rooney, or that her third novel is not Sally Rooney’s Third Novel. Rooney, famously, is a Marxist. Appropriately, therefore, Beautiful World, Where Are You exists in a dialectical relationship to Rooney’s first two books.

Alice and Felix recapitulate Marianne and Connell from Normal People (class difference; emotional misunderstandings). Eileen and Simon recapitulate Frances and Nick from Conversations with Friends (age difference; emotional misunderstandings).

But the low-temperature prose and the resolutely limited point of view are designed to frustrate the sort of easy identification with character that the earlier novels invited.

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Even more to the point, Alice has published two gigantically successful novels about relationships while still in her twenties, and has found herself (as she puts it) “a widely despised celebrity novelist”.

Alice’s success has alienated her not just from Eileen, but from life itself. When the novel begins, she has escaped, alone, to a house in a Mayo village (this is where she meets Felix).

To Eileen, she writes: “I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things — having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph on the internet, and reading comments about myself.” Her own fame, she suggests, is a symptom of a “disfiguring social disease”.

Interestingly, the novel doesn’t really reconcile Alice to her celebrity. At the end, she is still complaining to Eileen about the online response to her public image. Her complaints about her success are, of course, simultaneously an accurate perception of reality and the sort of thing a depressed person might harp on about — just as, when she pops to convenience shop for lunch, she cannot help but think about the exploited workers whose labour stocks the shelves.

It’s probably cavilling to point out that the novel states its Big Themes (climate change, civilisational collapse, inequality, the possibility of religious belief) but doesn’t really dramatise them.

Alice and Eileen — privileged, profoundly intelligent — discuss these concepts eloquently. But the ideas they discuss don’t especially impinge on the book’s central drama, which is about (that ancient theme) the relationship between self-knowledge and love.

There is a fascinating undercurrent of hostility towards the reader. This novel wants both to satisfy and to alienate its audience: both to scare off the plain folk who wept over Connell and Marianne and to create equally vivid characters in the frame of an equally moving love story.

Among the topics debated by Alice and Eileen is the worth of literary fiction. “Who can care,” Alice asks, “what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of an increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species? […] My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard.”

Alice’s argument might make us feel abashed for reading a novel about privileged young women falling in love. Or perhaps we might wonder why, if this is a genuine concern of Rooney’s (as opposed simply to the voice of Alice’s depression), no one in the novel changes their life in response to this brutal exploitation.

Rooney’s characters enjoy their privilege anxiously, but they do not reject it or seek to change the world. They have their cake and eat it.

Sometimes you find yourself wondering if this is also what Rooney is attempting. She wants to write a successful novel that declares novels irrelevant.

It’s a tricky path to travel. But Rooney is gifted in many ways. She shouldn’t be underestimated.

What’s good about this novel? Many things. Alice and Eileen are convincingly real. Rooney writes about sex superbly well. The book is full of interesting ideas. Its various unreconciled elements (the soapy ending; the fact that Felix and Simon are wish-fulfilment figures rather than believable characters), jostle fascinatingly alongside the richness of its ideas, the stray pleasures of its prose and the complexities of its ambition.

The faults of gifted writers are often more instructive than the competencies of bad ones. Accordingly, Beautiful World, Where Are You is not just worth reading. It’s worth thinking about.

Kevin Power’s novel White City is published by Scribner UK


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