It has been suggested that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the book where you could tell JK Rowling had made it as an author. Compared to its much slimmer predecessors, Goblet is a whopper, at 636 pages long – but Rowling had achieved such popularity by this point that no length would be off-putting to her millions of fans, and no editor would be in any sort of position to insist on trimming.
I suspect the same could be said of Beautiful World, Where Are You, the latest from the prodigiously successful Irish novelist Sally Rooney. Rooney’s first book, Conversations With Friends, was published to critical acclaim in 2017, when she was just twenty-six. Normal People followed a year later, winning a shower of awards and selling a million copies. A further spike in recognition came in summer 2020, when the BBC adapted Normal People into a ten-part TV series – one that was much commented on and made its male lead, Paul Mescal, into an indie heartthrob.
After being hailed as “the first great millennial novelist” for her two earlier works, the pressure on Rooney’s most recent novel must have been significant. What was always certain, though, was that Beautiful World would sell, and it did – queues of fans formed outside bookshops on release day, recalling the peak of Pottermania in the early 2000s. One wonders, in fact, how many of the young adult women eagerly awaiting Sally Rooney’s latest output may themselves have been outside Waterstones at midnight in their wizard hats twenty years ago.
Rooney is popular in part because her novels appeal not only to people’s preferences, but also their meta-preferences: the things we like to be seen to like. The books are accessible, moreish, and sexy, but also widely held to be good in a literary sense, and supremely zeitgeisty, the kind of thing you’d recommend to a friend for its incisive observations of Modern Life. For this purpose, it helps that Rooney’s books have an instantly recognisable brand, from the cover art to the distinctive, punctuation-light prose style. These aren’t just novels – they’ve been made into a sellable aesthetic by savvy marketing, such as the sending of exclusive tote bags and bucket hats to celebrities and literary influencers to drum up hype prior to Beautiful World’s release.
The central part of the books’ appeal, however, has to be their relatability. More than anything else I’ve read, these novels are written by someone who knows exactly how it feels to be a brainy, self-conscious, and insecure young woman at this precise moment in history. For any such individual, there is a comforting, if navel-gazing, pleasure to be had in reading the inner thoughts of someone who could almost be you, living her normal life that’s not dissimilar to yours. Rooney is expert in storytelling via “the accretion of little gestures“: seemingly banal details which build up to a fleshed out picture of daily life, conjuring loneliness and existential angst with occasional jolts of devastating recognition.
The plot of Beautiful World, Where Are You doesn’t stray far from the blueprint. As in every Sally Rooney novel, the story revolves around a pair of close friends at its centre, though now they have grown with the author, so that the setting is no longer university but two women approaching thirty. As usual, our protagonists work in the arts, and have insecurities that mean they behave in self-sabotaging ways; each has her own love interest established near the beginning. We have the same setting, too: largely Dublin, with, as usual, a Mediterranean holiday providing the scene for a key romantic development.
One novelty is that we have a main character, Alice Kelleher, whose biography is provocatively similar to Rooney’s own: a young writer who made a fortune with two popular and critically acclaimed novels in her twenties, and is now mulling over possibilities for a third while marvelling at the oddity of “why my life should have turned out this way”. Fame has made Alice miserable – we learn that before the start of the story she suffered a mental breakdown – and she is full of disdain for the snobbery and self-absorption of the literary world that has made her rich. Rooney uses the layers of irony this character affords to great effect, giving a discomfiting feeling of being watched by the author as you read her work.
But the most glaring difference between Beautiful World and Rooney’s previous novels is the way chapters alternate between narration and emails in which the two protagonists, Alice and Eileen, rather improbably keep in touch via lengthy musings on life, the universe, and everything. Many of these musings are interesting – particularly those on the role of fiction, and the unusual life of a celebrity author, which Rooney of course speaks on with insight and sensitivity. Others feel self-indulgent, or occasionally just plain offensive. On the Soviet Union, she says: “Human beings lost the instinct for beauty when the Berlin Wall came down” and “I think of the twentieth century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong […] Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended?”
It feels as though, in an effort to do something new, (and perhaps realising she has a captive audience), Rooney has decided to use her latest novel as a soap box. These sections barely advance the story, and there is little to distinguish between the voices or opinions of Eileen and Alice; instead, they blur unapologetically into one long manifesto by the author. Rooney herself is politically radical: she has described herself as “a big fan of” communism, and recently she faced backlash for refusing translation rights for Beautiful World to an Israeli publishing house due to her support for the BDS movement. Her conviction that capitalism is to blame for all the world’s ills and that we are now living in the final years of Western civilisation, expressed through the mouthpieces of her characters, felt pious and frankly annoying.
Perhaps my patience was worn thin by the self-indulgence of the email chapters, but by the end of the book, some aspects of the Rooney blueprint were beginning to feel a bit stale. Having read and enjoyed all three of her books, I can’t really conceive of any of her protagonists separately from the others: minus a few identifying details, pretty much the same personalities are repeated book after book. Turning the page to see our characters embarking on yet another session of tender lovemaking recounted in blow-by-blow detail had me thinking: “oh god, here we go again”. As well as this, the plot of Beautiful World is comparatively plain. Alice and Eileen both get together with the men they are set up with near the beginning without too many hiccups; at the end we skip forward eighteen months and learn that they are all living happily ever after. After over 300 pages, I had rather hoped for a bit more to happen.
Despite these drawbacks, Beautiful World remains an engrossing read, which fans of Rooney’s previous work will almost certainly enjoy. The mini-dissertations between each chapter are unsubtle, but Rooney is at her sharpest with the social commentary laced organically into the plot. Eileen’s compulsive social media scrolling and her lonely plight in an uncozy flatshare were both grimly relatable. An argument between Alice and her date over his usage of violent pornography struck me as extremely well observed, and almost prescient in its novelty. Perhaps, like friendship and love, being the voice of a generation is one of those things that happens best if you don’t try to force it.
Illustration by Isabelle Kori