“Beautiful World, Where Are You”
By Sally Rooney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pp. $28
This month’s return of Irish wunderkind novelist Sally Rooney has been billed by both her publishers and the transatlantic press as a literary “event,” for better and worse. With her bestselling debut, “Conversations With Friends,” and both the acclaimed book and TV adaptation of “Normal People,” Rooney has become the commercially anointed voice of millennial malaise. In language both accessible and clear, she chronicles the romantic longings of a generation adrift in a world — quite literally — on fire.
Her latest, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” does not venture much farther from the Dublin apartments, dinner tables and email inboxes of her previous work. For each splashy profile of the 30-year-old writer that has preceded publication, there is an equally pointed critique of her earnest mediocrity or the whiteness of her imagination.
In trying to focus on the new novel, it has seemed essential, albeit difficult, to shut out the incessant noise surrounding Rooney and her success. Fortunately, the writing more than lives up to the promise of its predecessors and even exceeds the hype. Rooney has written an extraordinarily lucid, gorgeous and nuanced work about coming of age in what is indeed a broken world. Without directly addressing the pandemic, the book powerfully reflects a moment defined by existential interiority and uncertainty. In making a novelist struggling with overnight fame one of her central characters, she has placed her own angst on the page.
The novel opens with a writer named Alice waiting for her Tinder date in a small-town bar. She has moved to the Irish countryside following a psychological breakdown and now lives in a large house by the sea, alone and withdrawn despite the obligations of her professional success: literary festivals and Internet celebrity. She is waiting at the bar for Felix, a local with a troubled past who scans shipping boxes in a delivery warehouse for a living and doesn’t read books. Parallel to the relationship they forge is the story of Eileen and Simon — Alice’s best friends in Dublin — who have been struggling to define their own entanglement for years. This is the extent of the plot. It is Rooney’s language and alertness to mood, setting and pacing that make these relationships so profoundly compelling.
Across her work, Rooney has been examining a Western generation born into the relative economic and political privilege of the 1990s, now confronted with a collapsing order and deep inequities. For those who thought their educations would provide protections and pathways to settlement, there is emotional drift and lack of connection.
On the surface, “Beautiful World” is indeed low-stakes 30-something angst — and perhaps this is exactly why Rooney has her share of detractors. “Normcore,” “basic” and “millennial” seem to be recurring accusations. In contrast with a literary moment defined by new, underrepresented voices and pulsating political novels filled with cultural reckonings, Rooney’s characters are rather ordinary. And yet, this is one of the most assured, poetic and beautifully calibrated books I’ve read in years. The “technology” of her novel — a term Rooney has used to describe her craft — is precision-tested to meet the way language works today.
In long emails interspersed between the central narrative, Eileen and Alice ruminate about everything from climate change to white privilege, from the history of writing to their ambivalence toward motherhood.
For all the hand-wringing about millennial self-absorption or social media narcissism, one of the most touching aspects of the generation for and about whom Rooney is writing is a certain earnestness and social consciousness the current political order seems unable to harness.