Sally Rooney writes as if a philosophy major broke her heart freshman year and she never fully recovered. In “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” the lasting shock of adolescent heartache has scabbed over and become a scar. Rooney’s characters have graduated from college, spent their twenties meandering through the world, and reached an age when online hookups turn to inevitable emotional commitments.
The story begins with Alice, a 29-year-old Dublin novelist who moves to the Irish countryside after a nervous breakdown. On an app, she meets Felix, a reticent local warehouse worker. They begin an agitating hot-and-cold relationship, the details of which she outlines in e-mails to her friend Eileen. Eileen, who works as an editorial assistant at a literary magazine, rekindles a decade-old romance with her childhood friend Simon, a devout Catholic and left-wing political consultant. The novel follows these two couples, alternating between narration and the women’s e-mails.
Rooney is a writer with a massive pop cultural following. After the smashing success of her first two books, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” has been highly anticipated by Rooney fans across the world. Her 2017 debut novel, “Conversations with Friends,” triggered a feverish multi-house auction. Her second novel, “Normal People,” was adapted into a briefly culture-shifting Hulu series; there is an active Instagram account dedicated to the chain necklace that the male protagonist wears in the show. Celebrities and supermodels post pictures of her books on their carefully curated social media feeds.
I am exactly the kind of person to whom “Beautiful World” is marketed: a young female reader with an appetite for the glamour of metropolitan milieu. In “Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends,” the characters are idealistic college leftists navigating the complexities of young adulthood. In “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” they’re adults on the cusp of their thirties. Reading the Rooney corpus in sequence feels like watching the characters grow up and mature into a life of complicated interpersonal relationships.
Rooney’s special skill is the ability to place readers at eye level with her characters and plot, to sneak them into the world of her story as a participant in the room. Her chapters begin with a time and a place: a hotel bar, a shared office in Dublin, the frozen food section of a convenience store. She pulls the reader in with her famously unadorned sentences and creates an intimacy akin to peering over the characters’ shoulders. The deliberate tenderness in her previous novels, the soft exchanges of her characters, and the absolute banality of her plots remain with “Beautiful World.”
In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Rooney said, “I feel like you can really get away with putting a lot of your opinions — if you wanted to — in a novel.” “Beautiful World” intersperses Alice and Eileen’s e-mails between chapters of narration, and the topics of their virtual exchange often stray from the specifics of their lives. They discuss the merits of Christianity, abstract theories of beauty, the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, the climate crisis. These chapters read like discursive essays and it becomes difficult to separate the characters’ thoughts from what feel like the author’s polemics. The e-mails and texts in Rooney’s previous works pushed the novels forward. They revealed the innermost workings of how the characters felt about each other, how their love was growing, how their insecurities got in the way of their triumphs. In “Beautiful World,” Alice and Eileen’s e-mails leave no significant impressions. The two friends writing to each other don’t even reunite until the last fifth of the book.
Alice and her creator have much in common. Alice is rich and famous for writing two critically and commercially successful books, and she resents the way her works are attached to her, her face, and her mannerisms “in all their demoralizing specificity.” And Alice is right. In an age of the hyper-commercialized publishing market and trendy authorial personas, to consume popular books like Rooney’s is to consume the beautiful headshots of the author gazing mysteriously into the camera, to watch the Hulu shows, and to click through media appearances.
Alice writes to Eileen about a journalist who interviews her: “What we really have here is an example of a presumably normal and sane person whose thinking has been deranged by the concept of celebrity. An example of someone who genuinely believes that because she has seen my photograph and read my novels, she knows me personally — and in fact knows better than I do what is best for my life.” The chapter may as well have been signed, “Love, Sally.”
Still, Rooney forces us to reckon with her criticisms of the literary world in which she thrives; and her commentary, deeply self-aware, pierces the fictional veil of her story. A feeling that the characters’ e-mails are aimed directly at us overwhelms any demands we may have of the author.
Rooney has been hailed as the “Salinger of the Snapchat generation.” Just as I resented Salinger’s Holden Caulfield for his teenage mishaps, I chafed at Alice and Eileen’s overgrown idiosyncrasies. Rooney plays out the disappearing, everyday moments of the Snapchat generation in the way Eileen drunkenly shows up at Simon’s doorsteps late at night or how Alice timidly mutters “I love you.” Holden was a phony who rallied against phoniness, and somehow, we kept turning the page. Rooney’s grippingly flawed characters held me hostage with reflections of myself.
BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU
By Sally Rooney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages, $28
Kyung Mi Lee is a writer based in New Haven.