“Beautiful World, Where Are You” by Sally Rooney
Review by Meredith Mckinnie
This contemporary romance novel by Sally Rooney centers on two meandering couples and the primary friendship between the women. Alice, an independently wealthy novelist fresh off a mental breakdown, and Eileen, an editor for a literary magazine, converse via letters/emails, ruminating on the state of their love lives or lack thereof. In the opening scene, Alice meets up with Felix, a warehouse stocker she met on Tinder. Rooney’s masterful prose says more in the silence conveyed between the two than the words exchanged. Social class dynamics complicate the pairing, as Felix’s insecurities about the origin of Alice’s interest fester throughout their interactions. Meanwhile, back in Dublin, Alice’s childhood friend Eileen starts flirting with their childhood friend Simon, who has harbored a love for Eileen for years. If the relationship pairings sound convoluted, the first few chapters of the novel read the same. I kept having to remind myself which woman was who, though intrigued enough to keep reading.
What Rooney does so well is to illustrate relationship spillover. One cannot fall in or out of love in a vacuum, as tension in one relationship impacts the others. The tension breeds more tension, as instead of plotting the friendship as a refuge, Rooney expands the overall tension by denying the characters and the readers any release. Rooney’s rumination on the female experience of approaching thirty, unmarried with little to no desire for children, intermingles with social commentary about the state of the world. Rooney’s novels, while compelling, evoke a mood of intellectual dreariness, as the characters convey a hopelessness most off putting considering their undeniable privilege.
Sally Rooney garnered critical acclaim for two prior novels, “Conversations with Friends” and “Normal People,” both adapted for the screen and available on Hulu – I highly recommend both books and adaptations. “Beautiful World,” while my least favorite of her novels, still manages to awe with its structure and poignant emotional awareness.
“Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive – because we are so stupid about each other.”