Self-defence and happy endings: review of Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney


Sally Rooney, 2021


Every person you’ve ever met or seen in the street lives a life as rich and complex as your own. Chapter Two of Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You forces us to confront this truth. We view ‘a woman’ as she goes about her day – at her job, meeting ‘a man’ for lunch, travelling home to eat leftovers for dinner, scrolling her phone on her bed. Then suddenly, all in a rush, we are told ‘her name was Eileen Lyndon. She was twenty-nine years old’ – on and on, about her family, her childhood, her adolescence, her years at college, her career, her friendships and relationships, her secrets, her unhappiness. It’s enough to give you vertigo.

The fact that we can never truly know others is not a new idea in the Rooney universe. But Beautiful World explores it more explicitly, its prose sweeping camera-like between subjects, narrating their actions with a curious but detached tone. Rather than adjectives, we read that Alice gazes around the room ‘as if uninterested’ or speaks ‘as if she were beginning to enjoy herself’. We don’t know what the characters truly feel. At times, the narrative offers us multiple possible interpretations for their actions, giving us no clue as to what it believes is the correct one.

Did Felix find her answers interesting, or was he bored? Was he thinking about her, or about something else, someone else? And onstage, speaking about her books, was Alice thinking about him?

Beautiful World is a novel which is as unsure about how its characters feel as it is about whether it should exist, or be read, in a world which often seems far from beautiful. It questions the value of spending the majority of our time thinking about our relationships with others – or even in consuming art and media about personal relationships – when there are so many bigger questions and problems to confront. Ultimately, it offers a defence of this behaviour, and thus of itself. And I like that fighting spirit.

Yes, there are still the familiar Rooney tropes here, weighing the book down into predictability. We have the mentally unstable, beautifully fragile brunette with the tall, handsome man, the cyclical miscommunication storyline in which they are both afraid to let the other in, and of course the sparse writing style. ‘Has she learnt how to use speech marks yet?’ my mum joked. No – some things never change.

But some things do. Beautiful World is a lot more structured than its predecessors. Rather than the jumps forward and backward in time we saw in Normal People, here the chapters progress neatly forward through the plot, with a chapter of Alice’s narrative, an email from Alice to Eileen, a chapter of Eileen, an email from Eileen, and round again. But rather than feeling restricted, the novel feels comfortable with this conformity – just as Eileen becomes comfortable with conformity in the final chapter.

I know it’s not the life you imagined for me, Alice – buying a house and having children with a boy I grew up with. It’s not the life I used to imagine for myself either. But it’s the life I have, the only one. And as I write you this message I’m very happy.

In the context of the dependent dynamic of Eileen and Simon’s relationship, it’s possible to read this ending as a succumbing to the expectations of patriarchy and heteronormativity – giving up one’s dreams of exceptionalism for an ordinary future.

But why read it this way when the characters are explicitly described as extremely happy? Eileen says of Simon ‘already I can tell how happy and proud he is, and how excited’ and of herself ‘in the morning I wake up feeling almost painfully happy.’ Why are we determined to disbelieve her in favour of a political reading which would rather see characters miserably struggling towards their dreams of exceptionalism than content with their lot?

Maybe it’s overly simplistic to accept these statements of happiness and throw away the political framework through which we are used to analysing book characters’ relationships. Or maybe it is evidence of an optimism which the book ultimately encourages us towards.

And this I why I loved Beautiful World and have decided to give it four stars: it makes an argument, offering us a way to approach life in a hopeful way, with something to believe in.

Throughout the novel, Alice and Eileen exchange emails which discuss everything from religion to climate change to global poverty to the death of beauty coinciding with the advent of plastic. Paragraphs on these topics are interspersed with the women discussing their personal lives (and in particular their love lives), just as the lengthy intellectual emails break up a narrative focusing almost entirely on the emotions of and relationships between four characters.

And therein lies the tension at the heart of Beautiful World – the tension Rooney grapples with and ultimately offers a resolution for.

In the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?

Not only do the characters fret about the fact that their attention is frequently torn away from important worldly and philosophical topics towards the trials and tribulations of their own privileged lives – but Rooney also metafictively questions the value of her own work within this same predicament.

Alice (an author whose first books – ‘about people’ – were both successful and criticised) writes:

Who can care, in short, what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species? Do the protagonists break up or stay together? What does it matter?

My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard.

In these moments, the novel questions the reader. Why are you reading this? Haven’t you got anything better to do?

Eileen answers:

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 a nice reason? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting.

It’s a self-defensive argument from character, book and author combined. Maybe you don’t agree with it – maybe you find it complacent and unambitious. Maybe you believe that people should strive to put the personal to one side to focus on the political. To believe that that is achievable is admirable.

Whether you agree or not with Rooney’s argument, I like that there is one. The book defends its own existence and the ending it gives its characters, and that makes it inherently robust and loveable.

I liked the emails. I liked that the novel looked outward as well as in and questioned how those two perspectives could ever sit side-by-side. I liked that topics were actually discussed instead of lazily featuring in the background (case in point being the class divide between Connell and Marianne, which was enough for Normal People to be described as ‘a Marxist novel’ ‘about class’). If someone were to describe Beautiful World as ‘about religion’ or ‘about the ethics of having children in the era of the climate crisis’, I wouldn’t stop them. Felix’s character, too, was a symptom of this broadening of scope which differentiates Beautiful World from the first two novels.

So too was Eileen’s pregnancy at the end of the novel – a very obvious metaphor for a hopeful future. She writes we have to try and build a world they can live in. Ultimately, the novel argues that the personal is what makes the political worth fighting for, and therein lies its value.

I suppose I think that having a child is simply the most ordinary thing I can imagine doing. And I want that – to prove that the most ordinary thing about human beings is not violence or greed but love and care.

The ‘ordinariness’ of it mentioned in the above quote is another factor which sets Beautiful World apart from the previous two novels. We might read at the end of Normal People that Marianne is ‘a normal person now’, but do we believe it? Could we imagine her and Connell having a child together, or even staying together for longer than five minutes?

This is why I see Beautiful World as the closing of the trilogy of Rooney’s first three unconnected novels. They grapple with the same themes – insecurity, fragility, miscommunication, low self-esteem, vulnerability, love, intimacy and the lack of it – but this third novel develops those themes to maturity. It offers hope for the future – not just for Simon and Eileen, but for all of Rooney’s characters thus far.

I couldn’t imagine we were going to be happy together. I thought it would be the same as everything else in my life – difficult and sad – because I was a difficult and sad person. But that’s not what I am anymore, if I ever was. And life is more changeable than I thought. I mean a life can be miserable for a long time and then later happy. It’s not just one thing or another – it doesn’t get fixed into a groove called ‘personality’ and then run along that way until the end. But I really used to believe that it did.

I say that I see the three novels as a trilogy because I could imagine Marianne saying the above quote five years down the line when her and Connell have figured out how to communicate and have got used to trusting each other. The familiar predictability of Rooney’s writing, themes and plotlines means that the happy ending she offers here could apply across the board. In Normal People and Conversations with Friends, the endings are uncertain, neither happy nor sad. We get the feeling that the will-they-won’t-they could easily continue on for many years. But Beautiful World closes that chapter – prompting me to ask, what next? I hope Rooney does something completely different: historical fiction, sci fi, murder mystery, biography, medieval-style fantasy, something supernatural or drawing from folklore, a retelling of a Shakespeare play, a novel in letters between two Dickensian pickpockets? Who can tell?

I liked the touch of referencing Covid lockdowns in the final two chapters. It was jarring, but in a nice way – perhaps surprising is a better word. Not only did it reinforce the more outward-looking tone when compared to the previous two books, but it situated the happy ending firmly in the real world.

Like Simon and Eileen glimpse each other in the street, so might we imagine glimpsing them together as we go about our day, perhaps with their future children. Strangers with richly complex inner lives, knowable only to themselves.

READ 18 – 26 SEPTEMBER 2021

Review by Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino in Jacobin: Sally Rooney’s New Novel Gives Us All We Should Want From Fiction

Review by Constance Grady in Vox: In Sally Rooney’s new novel, a celebrity author fights her own brand

Article by Ashleigh McCulloch on Tropics of Meta: Booksmart, Late-Capitalist, Bougie and Banal: Sally Rooney’s Normal People

Article by Ella Cory-Wright on The Fence: Conversations with Friends about Sally Rooney: An Epistolary Inquiry into the Zeitgeist, the Novels, the Publishers and Me

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