In an early chapter of Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney, acclaimed novelist Alice considers the burden of life under public scrutiny, the vampiric nature of contemporary media sparking loathing both inward and out. It looks very much like an auto-fictional interlude for the stratospherically successful Rooney, under pressure to deliver the goods with her third novel.
In this introspective story of existential musing and sexual entanglements, we follow the interconnected lives of Alice, her best friend Eileen, and their lovers, as they navigate the passively consuming world of our ‘decadent, declining’ civilisation. As clever, bookish girls growing up in Ireland, Alice and Eileen’s friendship is cemented at university, Eileen considering Alice to be an iconoclast ahead of her time, and Alice declaring her friend to be ‘a genius and a pearl beyond price.’
The mutual admiration continues after uni but the lives diverge, Alice landing a mega-bucks book deal while Eileen takes a low-paid job at a literary magazine, which seems to consist largely of ‘moving apostrophes around and deleting commas.’
It’s in these post-degree years that the story unfolds. Alice is renting a house a few hours from Dublin, in recovery from a nervous breakdown, caused at least in part by the pressures of being a celebrity novelist. Eileen is in Dublin, navigating the standard millennial world of high rents and unwelcome flatmates.
Their ongoing friendship sits at the heart of the novel, the dynamics of their love lives adding layers of complexity to Rooney’s portrait of human intimacy. The love interests take the form of Eileen’s longtime crush, Simon, and Alice’s Tinder hook-, Felix, the foursome only inhabiting the same space in the latter stages of the story. Here, the plot tautens and threatens when with sly mischief, one of them begins to pick at some invisible wounds.
An admission; I haven’t read Rooney’s previous work and approaching this with a virginal thrill, I concluded that it was a decent read, a feeling that seemed disappointing given the rampant publishing hype. Rooney-mania has a lot to answer for, as the author herself wryly indicates. I enjoyed her perspicacious take on millennial expectations of relationships but found the sometimes clinical prose frustrating. We’re shown the characters’ dialogue and movements (often in precise detail) but never inhabit their interior lives. In contrast, we’re fed swathes of email conversation between Alice and Eileen, which fizzes with their views on their time and place in history, particularly capitalism, consumerism and the ‘lurid ugliness’ of much of modern life.
I was struck by Eileen’s observation that the instinct for beauty was lost in the 1970’s, once plastic became widely used. Look at street photography from before and after this period and the evidence is starkly persuasive.
The question is, is it vulgar and decadent ‘to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse?’
Rooney’s triumph is that she gives us an answer.
Here’s what Julie thought about Rooney’s best-selling Normal People.
Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney is published by Faber & Faber, 352 pages.