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By now we already know that there are two types of people in this world: those who enjoy Sally Rooney books and those who don’t. These character-driven, dialogue-heavy books that revolve around young, leftist Dubliner women in ambiguous romantic relationships and unstable friendships are not for everyone.
I find myself in the fan camp. After reading Francis and Bobbi’s adulterous adventures in “Conversations with Friends” and Connel and Marianne’s heartbreaking love story from high school to college in “Normal People,” I was immediately hooked to Sally Rooney’s writing style. Dialogues without quotation marks, toxic power dynamics, protagonists who make rather questionable life decisions, discussions of class and capitalism — “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is a continuation of what we’ve read from Rooney before, but it offers a different angle: one that truly shows her growth as an author.
“Beautiful World, Where Are You” follows two best friends, Alice, an acclaimed writer figuring out what it means to be famous, and Eileen, an editorial assistant of a literary magazine in Dublin. The book consists of Alice and Eileen’s emails to one another as Alice starts dating a guy, Felix, whom she met on Tinder, and Eileen starts flirting with her old friend Simon.
In a post-modern apocalyptic time (that is, the 21st century), both women are distressed by their own failures and the constant deterioration of the world. Eileen struggles to find self-worth because she is still single at 29 and has a mundane job unlike her renowned friend, while Alice finds her own work hollow and feels guilty for making money off of selling books that have no moral or political impact on the world. The two are questioning how to find meaning in their lives at a time when they consider the world to be swiftly disintegrating as a result of neoliberalism, power imbalances and the climate crisis. Their friendship grows as they open themselves to each other’s opinions.
“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? After that there was no chance for the planet, and no chance for us,” says Eileen in the novel.
Rooney depicts the friends’ conversations on global issues, inserts discussions on art, sex and religion and portrays the progressions of the two women’s parallel romantic relationships as well as their friendship.
One thing that made me fall in love with “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is the way Rooney shows her protagonists’ ability to find solace in their existence despite their discontent with the world.
“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 if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine?” writes Rooney, depicting how her characters reach their own resolutions through love. Similar to “Conversations with Friends,” the novel’s emphasis on platonic friendships melts your heart. While Eileen and Alice try to rekindle their friendship that has been restricted to existing online for so long, they find meaning in their own existence. Their unwavering bond is a reminder that even when all they can see around the world is “misery and degradation,” they are still capable of being intimate with other people and falling in love. And isn’t that an optimistic take on humanity?
However, there is a common critique that Rooney’s books receive, and “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is no exception. Rooney’s books have been called out for participating in fashionable politics because her characters often make leftist political comments that read trivially. This critique rightly points out that, because fashionable politics is used so often in various forms of media, it sometimes steers the audience away from actual political conversations. However, it seems that Rooney is aware of this and even does it on purpose, which is made clear by her latest work. Eileen admits in one of her emails to Alice that she has not read enough theory on subjects she covers in her emails, just like when Connel in “Normal People” realized none of his classmates were doing the assigned readings.
It is realistic that these young protagonists have not read theory and are just speaking on whatever comes to mind. They are flawed characters, which is made obvious by their messy relationships, and they participate in fashionable politics themselves. Rooney isn’t practicing fashionable politics; she is exposing it.
Although Rooney identifies as a Marxist, her books are a reflection of the real-life experience of “normal people” going through life in a politically turbulent world. Her books are not meant to teach readers theory. It is also evident that the protagonists in Rooney’s novels are not the people most affected by the current crises of the world, hence their constricted worldview on many subjects. Rooney recognizes her characters’ privileged points of view. She depicts their struggle of identifying this privilege and what to do with it. Rooney also agrees with the Marxist thought that a relatively well-paid working class could live in the illusion that they are not harmed by capitalism when in fact they are not economically secure, as the bourgeois is, and are not exempt from the impacts of the system. These mainly include alienation from their labor, from other people, and even from themselves, which Marx associates with the proletariat. Hence, Rooney places her characters in this complicated class, allowing herself to still write about social class without directly depicting the struggles of a lower working class.
This is not to say “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is primarily a social class critique. Although it makes one think about such issues, ultimately it accepts the one-sided viewpoint of its characters and its white author, their lives so far beyond most marginalized groups, and it merely depicts how relatively frivolous anxiety plays out in romantic and platonic relationships. Rooney has also mentioned that she writes of the world she herself has been subjected to. Her characters are privileged, white, college-educated individuals like herself, and they replicate the world she encountered when she first graduated from college. Rooney recognizes that experiences that stray from her own are not necessarily her story to tell and make profit from.
Moreover, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” tackles the issue of fashionable politics in a way Rooney’s previous work has not because it focuses on Alice, who also struggles with the fact that her works are not politically significant. Alice puts constant blame on herself because she thinks she is making money by selling her books without actually contributing to society. In an interview by the Louisiana Channel, Rooney talks about a culture economy that has predetermined the way books are to be read. “The writer sells them the product which is cultured existence in the form of a commodity, commodity being the book,” said Rooney, highlighting how in the modern age people literally pay to buy books in order to fit themselves in a class of “people who read books.” Rooney says she is afraid of contributing to this narrative where books are merely commodities, decor on a shelf, not to be read in the name of political change but to display as souvenirs of class. Alice’s anxiety in “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is thus mirrored by Rooney in real life and explores this issue of book commodification..
“So the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world, packing it tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text. And we can care once again, as we do in real life, whether people break up or stay together — if and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e. everything,” says Alice, summarizing how contemporary Euro-American novels suppress the realities of life for so many people around the world in order to create something that actually “sells.” With this critique, Rooney actively questions if a person or an object (in this instance a novel) should have its value measured based on its contribution to society, technology and culture. Her characters are therefore agonized by the struggle of questioning their value in civilization’s “decadent declining phase”.
To this end, is Rooney’s novel, despite heavily containing global issues, similar to the Euro-American novels Alice criticizes in the book? Perhaps, in the sense that it is very unlikely that it will actually trigger global action against the climate crisis. Nevertheless, it reminds the reader that friendships, love and the like are not actually trivial matters and that perhaps there is an incomparable value in them that we don’t often recognize.
Eileen and Alice’s emails are not going to kick-start a political revolution, but they do show readers the intricacies of online communication, of friendships dating back years, of losing touch with someone and of salvaging the love you once had for them. The hard feelings between the two friends reveal themselves in playful intellectual competition through the emails; however, it is not the tension that keeps the friends writing, but the need to communicate. Amid their mutual stress, they find shelter in their friendship and recognize not only the beauty of their relationship but the beauty of their own lives. They accept that it is valuable to invest in loving the world although each little investment might look trivial. This gives the book a vastly different value than philosophical or political texts, but it does not make it any less worth your time.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.