Beautiful World, Where Are You
A Book Review of the Novel by Sally Rooney
I wrote this book review for my boyfriend, who would hate Beautiful World, Where Are You with a fiery passion.
I love Sally Rooney and I’m not really sure why. I find her characters horribly vain and banal, yet extremely relatable. I know many people who would hate Beautiful World, Where Are You because nothing really happens in the novel, and the drama in the story is created by the characters’ own incompetencies and questionable decisions. In the end, Sally Rooney’s novels are stories about character development, for some readers that might not be enough, but I will read every single book she writes.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is from the perspective of two women, Alice and Eileen, who are college friends. Alice has moved to Ireland after being institutionalized. While there, Alice meets Felix, who is an attractive but otherwise unappealing man of the working class. Eileen works for a literary magazine, and is essentially voluntarily poor on principle. Eileen is in love with her friend Simon and he’s in love with her, but they aren’t together because Eileen is conflicted by the person she thinks she should be and what she wants. Also, Simon sucks at communicating. The story alternates between the first person perspectives of Alice and Eileen and a series of letters sent between the two women. The novel follows the relationships of these four characters as the continually fight and make-up.
I’ve read all of Sally Rooney’s novels and yet I haven’t written a review about any them. Honestly, I’m not really sure how to write a review about Rooney’s books because when I summarize her books, they just sound horrible. Who would want to read it? There are so many reasons to dislike Rooney books and characters, but hey, I love them. The story itself is not why I keep coming back to her novels, her writing evokes an intangible ambiance that’s hard to capture.
Rooney reminds me of Pablo Picasso. Picasso spent the majority of his career learning how to paint in a classical style. Once he mastered that style he started to deconstruct it, creating the art he is most famous for today. Rooney has a degree in English from Trinity College Dublin and a MA in American Literature. Her novels have become the exemplary modern contemporary novel, by both emulating and deconstructing the style of preceding contemporary authors like Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. The themes are consistent with these early 2000’s novels, but the writing style is like social media — brief yet expressive. Rooney writes with fluidity about awkward topics. She lacks the elegance of the previous age, but she is the millennial voice.
Rooney’s books are very millennial — liberal, self-centered, and dramatic (I’m also a millennial, and guilty as charged). The characters in Beautiful World, Where Are You are never in any physical danger, but instead are eternally conflicted by inner turmoil that is a result of past trauma. The mess up their own lives through self-sabotage, lack of communication, and self-doubt.
Her characters are self-centered and the dialogue is terse and pointed. It’s both awkward to read but also easy to imagine a real millennial talking and acting like the people in Beautiful World, Where Are You. Her characters are so well developed and realistic that it’s like reading about your own questionable friend making bad decisions that are clearly not in their own self interest.
I’m not saying this is what every millennial is like this (I have many friends who outright reject the individualistic identity of a “Rooney” character), but it’s what the media pretends all millennial are like. The quintessential Rooney character is an unsatisfied millennial stereotype that is most frequently used in art and media as the millennial everyman. Is it healthy to read about people who are unhappy despite having met everyone of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Perhaps… maybe the novel speaks to the fact that money doesn’t buy happiness, but after finishing this book I recommend reading an educational book that puts the characters’ privilege in perspective.
I really liked this book, but like with every Rooney novel, it sits on the edge of love and hate. The style and polarity of Rooney novels reminds me of people’s visceral reactions to Catcher in the Rye. If you hate Cather in the Rye, (like my boyfriend and Whalemina) I’d stay far far away from Sally Rooney. Otherwise, I would highly recommend her novels.
The Don’t Call Me Ishmael Official Book Rating, Sponsored by Whales Wailing Against Pretentious Books (WWAPB):
4/5 Whales. A Tail for the Ages.