Review by Olivia Heggarty
Sally Rooney bounced back with an eagerly-awaited bang in early September with her new novel, Beautiful World, Where are You. Following Rooney’s previous two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, this third project has been awaited with both apprehension and anticipation. This is due to the incredible success of Rooney’s first two novels, both on page and the screen. Being a fan of Rooney’s novels already, I was waiting with an eager hand for the third.
In reviews of the novel, there has been a vast mix of opinions regarding Rooney’s plot lines – complaints about her novels having themes too similar to one another – novels filled with fragile women, misunderstandings within non-committed relationships, unhealthy and toxic family structures and falling out with friends. And I have to say that I agree. Rooney’s novels contain all of these themes and often when reading her work it feels as if she injects parts of her novels into her other work. However, I don’t view this necessarily as a flaw in her writing. While originality is indeed something I value and encourage, Rooney personally isn’t concerned with plots, but relationships between people. This is what makes her stand out as a writer.
Beautiful World, Where Are You explores themes of isolation, religion, romance, social class and friendship, setting it up to be a highly relevant novel for today’s world. One of the most innovative and successful story-telling tools used by Rooney was the switching format between first-person email and third-person narrative. Alice and Eileen exchange emails every other chapter, allowing the reader to see the situations in the novels through the friends’ eyes as well as viewing it objectively between the emails. This successfully exposed many of the human flaws in the characters. There are misinterpretations, exaggerations of events and white lies present in the emails between the women, the real events of which the reader has already viewed objectively in the chapter before the email. This also allows for deeper character understanding and analysis as the reader can view how the women take on, justify and digest pain in their own words, as well as being able to criticise their actions from the previous chapter.
A thought that kept popping into my head as I read the third novel was this: does Sally Rooney write weak female characters? Weak at their core, perhaps not, but reliant on men for comfort, to glue together their broken bits, to stabilise their mental health? Maybe. I think back to Marianne from Normal People and to Frances from Conversations with Friends. These are women totally consumed by longing, by the desire to be truly understood by a man. On several occasions we read that they would let the men they love do absolutely anything to them. For me, this is a contentious point. I want to read strong female characters, I want them to inspire me, to strengthen my sense of womanhood and to make me proud. But, upon deeper reading and more intense thought, I changed how I viewed Rooney’s female characters. She is an author who focuses on the core of people and the core of relationships. Her women are not stupid, nor fickle, nor lacking in intelligent thought. Her women speak out against arrogant sexist commentary in university, parties and conferences. They discuss late-stage capitalism in the sphere of current social class within private colloquial emails. They comfort and love people. But why do they have to do these things for me to respect them as women? Isn’t it okay to relish in human fragility sometimes? In a world where strength, stoicism and burning yourself out is expected and viewed as a societal norm, seeing fragile people in literature can be a refreshing comfort.
This is the truth in Rooney’s novels. She allows her women to be weak. She allows her men to be weak, too. In this novel, Felix and Simon are men grappling with their families, past trauma and, exactly like the women, make an abundance of mistakes due to weakness of character and boundaries. Rooney allows fragility into relationships in her novels and because of this her scenes of romance between her fragile characters are tender and gorgeous. When we think about criticising female character writing for “weakness”, we should give male characters the same scrutiny. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney explores and allows room for human fragility, often left behind in our modern “girlboss” culture for women, and expectations of masculinity for men.
Another distinctive quality of this novel is the lack of quotation marks usually utilised to mark speech. As a terrible member of the Punctuation Police, this emission always strikes me.
However, the lack of quotation marks make the physical descriptions as powerful and important as the speech, which is a difficult thing to master. As Rooney uses so much dialogue to form her character relationships, the reader can feel like they’re sitting on Alice’s sofa, listening quietly to the characters’ conversations. Sally Rooney’s power of description elevates her work. The reader is given an abundance of detail about the smallest of tasks – checking and locking a phone, eating a bite of food or drinking a glass of wine are all important in Rooney’s work, and given the status of any other integral action. Furthermore, I was impressed by Sally Rooney’s ability to dot in details about the characters throughout the novel. She makes the reader work for their bread, not giving away details about her characters right away, but introducing them naturally throughout the novel, until the end. This makes for such brilliant character building, and provides a constant sense of genuine curiosity to learn about the characters.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is a delicious variety of immersive and tender writing, intelligent perspectives and a look into the messiness of 21st century love and friendship. Rooney’s continuing success confirms her status as a great Irish author, and her provoking novels will be forcing readers’ noses into books for years to come.
4 / 5 stars