With ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You,’ Sally Rooney proves she is still an indomitable literary presence

Courtesy of Anna Terry.

Sally Rooney’s third published novel “Beautiful World, Where Are You” takes its title from one of the lines in the famous poem “The Gods of Greece” by Friedrich Schiller. This probing title is central to the novel and its characters: where is the beauty in this trouble-plagued time? How does one find it? 


Arriving three years after the overwhelming success of her second novel “Normal People,” “Beautiful World, Where Are You” follows the stories of a young and extremely celebrated author named Alice, a man she meets on Tinder named Felix, her best friend from college Eileen and Eileen’s childhood friend and current lover Simon. The narrative bolsters the intimate and concise prose that has become a staple of Rooney’s literature. She takes her time telling the entire story, escorting the reader through every detail of a sunlit room in the beginning of the novel, to crafting an intricate vision of the sea-soaked Dublin coast towards the story’s conclusion. In classic Rooney fashion, dialogue is sans quotation marks and the story centers around the dissection of friendship and sexuality in millennial relationships. 


The novel opens with Alice seated in a bar, awaiting a date with her Tinder match Felix. The evening leads to a second date, an impromptu trip to Rome, and the beginnings of an emotionally complicated relationship. However, Alice and Felix’s relationship demands suspension of disbelief from the reader. It is implausible that Alice would invite a near stranger to accompany her on such an important literary trip, especially given their disastrous first date. It takes about two-thirds of the novel for the reader to see Alice as a character on the edge of desperation—this insight does not come soon enough for the Rome trip to appear logical. 


Simultaneously, Eileen reconnects with her childhood best friend Simon, who has just split from his longtime girlfriend in Paris. They begin a noncommittal relationship, at first via phone, and then in person. These two strings of the story take turns throughout the novel. 


The narrative between these four characters is permeated by an email exchange between Alice and Eileen, through which Rooney speaks directly to the reader. These emails criticize the contemporary world, speak to power dynamics between the characters and explore what it means to be religious at a time when mass media has replaced reverence. 


In one email, Eileen describes how beauty has changed from a genuine virtue into an exploitative trend. She tells Alice, “The beauty industry is responsible for some of the worst ugliness we see around us in our visual environment, and the worst, most false aesthetic ideal, which is the ideal of consumerism.” This is a thread that continues throughout the novel—that beauty ended in the 20th century, and since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of plastics, the quality of contemporary Western life has greatly deteriorated. For Alice and Eileen, there is a direct correlation between the technological revolution and the aesthetic experience; the rise of the internet has destroyed archaic principles of beauty. For some, this may not matter, but for the characters in “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” this is everything. 


Rooney explores power dynamics in all of her novels. In her debut novel, “Conversations with Friends,” she focuses on a relationship between a younger woman and an older, more successful man. With her second book “Normal People,” she writes about how class differentiates two individuals. In this effort, Rooney continues this trend by exploring age, success and class in the connections between Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon. Alice, a reflection of Rooney herself, is a successful and wealthy novelist. She begins a relationship with Felix, who works in a shipping warehouse in Dublin. Eileen makes a minimum salary by working at a literary magazine. Her love interest Simon is older, well-off and works as a senior political advisor. 


Rooney excels at delving into these power dynamics in “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” The social differences between the characters are subtle but noticeable; Rooney does not explicitly comment on them, but cleverly weaves the influence of her characters’ upbringing and societal position into their dialogue and individual quirks. 


One of the most compelling parts of Rooney’s narrative is her exposé on religion. Simon is a devout Catholic, which Eileen finds deeply strange. She is shocked by the sincerity of his faith, especially at a time when religious millennials are increasingly rare. Rooney ruminates about how celebrity culture now fills the space that religion once occupied. 


These emails not only provide Rooney the opportunity to bluntly discuss contemporary issues; they also give the reader access to deeper levels of Alice and Eileen’s consciousnesses. 


“Beautiful World, Where Are You” is Rooney’s most mature and complex work yet. It is a testament to the evolution of art in current society, the effects of social differences and whether stories about personal relationships still matter in today’s climate. This novel is proof that they do. 

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