Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You? | HerCanberra

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Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You?

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Warning: Minor spoilers ahead!

With three best-selling novels published by the age of 30, Sally Rooney is by most definitions, a huge success.

Her latest, Beautiful World, Where Are You?, can perhaps be read as a personal interrogation from Rooney, forcing us to question the values that we equate with “success” in the 21st Century.

Sally Rooney’s debut 2017 novel, Conversations with Friends introduced her voice that so clearly and eloquently expressed a generation of millennials, disgruntled with the capitalist world they have been forced to adopt.

This voice, tinged with a fierce intellect and comical irony, forms a humanistic portrayal of life where political rebellion merely stands alongside the deeply visceral experiences of love, sex and friendship.

Shortly after, Rooney’s Normal People was published, capturing the hearts of so many readers and cementing Rooney as one of the most prominent authorial voices today. A love story so captivating and familiar, we wince while reading, remembering our own youthful failures and hesitations to communicate with the ones we love.

We fell in love with Connell and Marianne on the page and, later, on-screen and waited (impatiently) to fall into the worlds of Rooney’s next characters. A world that looks much like our often insufferable own, made bearable with sharp dialogue and characters that draw us away from our psyche and into their own. Beautiful prose that interrogates our world while, simultaneously, offering us an escape from it.

So finally, after three years we have received our third book from Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You? with its beautiful blue cover gracing us on many an Instagram stories.

Fittingly, I might add, as the novel delves into how we consume online content, including the all-too-familiar process of internet stalking your ex. Reading this novel was familiar in other ways: Rooney’s flawless dialogue, her Irish settings, her exploration of sex and sexual desire and of the ways we communicate or fail to do so.

What is different about Beautiful World is the matured aspects, capturing what it feels like to be in your thirties and delving further into Rooney’s political and philosophical musings.

The novel is based around the friendship between Eileen and Alice, navigating their relationship with each other and respective romantic relationships. For Eileen, a childhood friend named Simon who is beautiful, charming and emotionally reserved. And for Alice, a warehouse worker, Felix, who she meets on a Tinder date.

Eileen is an editor for a literary magazine making a feeble income, and Alice, a successful novelist (much like Rooney herself), is rich and moves away to live alone in a rectory in West Ireland following a psychiatric breakdown.

Their friendship exists mostly through the emails they exchange which punctuate the narrative, perhaps an omniscient space that Rooney creates for herself to intellectually roam. Here, Rooney’s voice shines through, expressing what could be understood as her own guilt with her own monetary “success” while being a self-proclaimed “Marxist”.

Beautiful World, Where Are You? contains a clear self-reflexivity. This interesting new mode for the author establishes a cynical reaction to the literary, or more broadly, the modern world in which she inhabits. Eileen’s response to one of Alice’s emails reads, “do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life?”

Although Rooney beautifully and seamlessly explores the “problem of contemporary life”, perhaps this comes at a cost as her latest characters don’t have the same intrigue and complexities as in Rooney’s previous work. Alice’s psychiatric breakdown is never fully fleshed out and her relationship with Felix feels more confusing than authentic.

Eileen and Simon’s back-and-forth between friendship and romance verges on tedious in the novel’s final chapters and does not contain the same gripping force of Connell and Marianne in Normal People.

It appears these characters exist as a vessel to express Rooney’s dissatisfaction with capitalism with emphasis on their contrasting working lives, lacking her previous level of personality and likability.

The novel ends with the all too familiar pandemic that further situates the narrative deeply and essentially within our current context. Relaying what Eileen says earlier with a seeming self-awareness, “there is no longer a neutral setting. There is only the timeline. I don’t know really whether this will give rise to new forms in the arts or just mean the end of the arts altogether, at least as we know them”.

Unusually for Rooney, the narrative is neatly tied up with a ‘happily ever after’ moment, leaving the reader a little dissatisfied.

But perhaps this is the point of her artistic mode—forcing us to sit with the discomfort of characters which we see ourselves in and maybe simultaneously dislike.

A post-pandemic movement that, although we desperately want to escape our world, forces us instead to reflect on it, to look at ourselves, our measures of success and failure and how we exist in our contemporary timeline.

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