Beautiful World, Where Are You: A Novel
“Sally Rooney doesn’t repeat herself. Rather, she is a pentimento artist, building a familiar world in a way that makes it feel boldly new.”
Sally Rooney is proof positive that not only are there second acts for some writers but brilliant third acts as well. In her most recent novel—Beautiful World, Where Are You—she plumbs the depths of familiar territory.
The main characters in Beautiful World, Where Are You offer a mirror image of those in Rooney’s 2017 debut novel Conversations with Friends. Alice, the famous writer, and Eileen, her less successful best friend, have a psychological and aesthetic DNA that can be readily traced back to Frances and Bobbi of Conversations with Friends. And the love of Eileen’s life, her on-and-off again boyfriend Simon, closely resembles the strikingly handsome and deeply compassionate Nick of Conversations with Friends or Connell of Normal People.
The main character in Beautiful World, Where Are You, Eileen, will remind many readers of Marianne, the central character in Normal People. The characters in Beautiful World, Where Are You voice the same existential dread with a similar dry wit and demonstrate a comparable millennial textualization of their lives via media. This is not to say that the characters in Beautiful World, Where Are You are derivative any more than one can make a claim that Flannery O’Connor ‘s giving life to the same characters in one short story after another made her a lesser writer.
Sally Rooney doesn’t repeat herself. Rather, she is a pentimento artist, building a familiar world in a way that makes it feel boldly new. Themes touched upon in her first two novels rise to the surface in Beautiful World—the inequities of capitalism, the possibilities inherent in socialism, the fluid nature of sexual identity, the relationship between religion and morality, the power of art, and a new, clearly autobiographical subject for Rooney: the emotional costs of celebrity. Alice, the successful and famous novelist, feels that celebrity culture has metastasized, filling the whole left when religion made its exit, becoming “a sort of malignant growth where the soul used to be.”
From the first pages of Beautiful World, where an anonymous woman meets a man in a rural bar, Rooney finds a way of making ordinary details pulse with significance. She compels the reader to care about these characters even before she reveals who they are and how they will be significant in the plot. Consistently, she allows the reader to glance “for a moment into something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality; the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world.”
The plot itself is a masterful act of contrapuntal construction, shuttling from scenes focusing on Alice, the famous writer; Felix, the warehouse worker she meets online; Eileen, an editorial assistant in Dublin; and Simon, a political consultant who is her childhood friend and unacknowledged love.
The narrative shifts back and forth from one set of characters to another with emails from Eileen to Alice and from Alice to Eileen. The tone shifts from the dramatic scenes, rendered in a simple, mesmerizing naturalistic prose style, to the polemical, expository style of the emails that fly back and forth between Alice and Eileen.
In another writer’s hands this could prove to be disconcerting and dizzying—and at times the emails become a bit loud in their preaching about rapacious capitalism or the disintegrating, polluted planet—but, generally, Rooney manages the tonal shifts with a dexterity that will make the reader nod appreciatively. Reading her novels is like standing onstage to watch a magician at work and still not being able to discover exactly how she manages to perform the trick.
The four principal characters in book are fractured souls, wounded and struggling to find beauty and meaning in the world. The fundamental sensibility in the novel is apocalyptic in the way that Walker Percy’s novels are apocalyptic. As one of Rooney’s characters in the novel says, “Aren’t we fortunate babies to be born when the world ended?” Rooney’s epigraph for the novel is from Natalia Ginzburg, but the epigraph from Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World that Walker Percy used for The Last Gentleman could serve Rooney’s novel as well : “Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another. . . .”
Sometimes that communication comes in crisp, sharp-edged dialogue. Sometimes it comes in captious emails. And at times in comes in the form of phone sex done in perfectly orchestrated realistic detail, the kind of witty, hot phone sex one might like to imagine Frank O’Connor engaging in with Edna O’Brien if they had been the same age and a couple in the early 21st century.
Sally Rooney is a modern Irish writer, and it might be hard for some to detect a lineage that brings her back to Yeats or Synge or Joyce, but in Beautiful World, Where Are You, she does manage an appreciative nod to James Joyce’s greatest story, “The Dead.” Toward the end of Beautiful World, Where Are You, one of the characters, Felix, sings a version of “The Lass of Aughrim” that brings Alice to tears. His song does for her what the same song did for the characters in “The Dead.” It gives rise to self-knowledge and allows a shift toward empathy and away from self-absorption. The beautiful world, the characters find, is right in front of them. All they have to do is open their eyes to see it.