Genevieve Brown immerses herself in Sally Rooney’s latest novel, giving personal insight into why it is yet another success.
I love Sally Rooney discourse almost as much as I love Sally Rooney novels. It is a guilty pleasure, knowing as any Rooney fan knows how little the author enjoys the spotlight. With every article I click on I am contributing to the fame that punishes her; not allowing her novels to stand alone. Yet, I agree with her character Alice when she writes, “people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it – are, and I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill.” Much better to be a Rooney then, and to be so private that you express surprise when your interviewer reveals their awareness that you have a husband.
Her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You will delight her fans, and I believe it is her best work. It brings to mind a quote from Normal People, about bookish Connell: “It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying each other. But there it is: literature moves him.” I was so moved by the story of Felix, Eileen, Simon, and Alice and this propelled me through my reading of it.
There isn’t a great deal of action in terms of plot – all the better for the characters to spend time with each other. Famous author Alice meets Felix on Tinder. Alice’s best friend, Eileen, has another best friend she grew up with, Simon, and the two of them have a sometimes-sexual, sometimes-not relationship. In Rooney’s two previous novels, we could read what the characters were thinking. In this one she frequently leaves it to the reader and simply describes the scene; Eileen is always checking her ex’s social media, but we never know for sure what she is searching for. These details, and absences of details, make the story feel so true and real. It also means that when miscommunications occur, the reader is also fully immersed in the confusion.
We instead gain insight into the thoughts of Eileen and Alice through their email correspondence. They cover topics including having children during impending climate disaster; a total government ban on nonessential plastic for aesthetic reasons; and, appropriately, concerning oneself with friendship and romance when there are so many more important things to be thinking about.
While the author’s female characters display the same insecurities that nearly every woman I’ve ever known has, the depths of Rooney’s men frequently only reach further goodness. Simon is straight out of Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams: he’s so tall, and handsome as hell. Rooney gives him a twist of Fleabag hot priest by making him Catholic and a good listener. Felix however, is Rooney’s first openly callous male character. His most unkind moments made me feel a visceral and familiar panic, but as a reader you never doubt his chemistry with Alice. He is also present for some of the most interesting passages in the book, such as a discussion of porn; in standard Rooney fashion, there is a lot of explicit sex in this novel.
There has been debate around the more earnest sections in the book, and whether or not they are satirical. It is my belief that these characters are intended to be flawed as people are, and this means that they are capable of being irritating or overtly earnest as people are. There is an optimism to this book, one that contrasts with the dominant narrative among left-leaning young people today. It is best summarised by Eileen in my opinion: “Maybe we’re just born to love and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing.”