There is hardly an author more hyped in modern British society than Sally Rooney, it seems. I very much enjoyed her first two novels, her debut Conversations with Friends, and 2018’s Normal People, which I thought pitch-perfect. I was quite looking forward, then, to picking up her newest effort, 2021’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, and joined my library’s reservation queue before it got too long.
I was not sure what to expect from Beautiful World, Where Are You, and feared that it would be a rehash of her first two books. Let’s face it, these novels are filled with similarities already, from their Irish setting, to the hapless individuals who don’t really know where they’re going in life. If I’m honest, the blurb of Beautiful World, Where Are You didn’t hold much appeal for me. Had this just been a random tome from an unknown author which I’d picked up in the library or a bookshop, I doubt I would have chosen to read it. This perhaps should have been an indicator for me of what was to come.
The novel deals with four people approaching the end of their twenties. Novelist Alice has just rented an enormous house somewhere on the coast of the Republic of Ireland, and meets warehouse worker Felix there on a Tinder date. This encounter is one of the most awkward and cringeworthy interactions which I have read in a novel for quite some time. Felix is incredibly shifty, and I still do not understand the motivations for Alice inviting him on a work trip to Rome, when she has only met him three times – on said awkward date, on an equally awkward encounter in a local shop, where he spends a lot of time hitting a ready meal against his leg (?), and a ‘party’ at his house, which she practically invites herself to anyway – and he really does not seem to like her. The odd relationship which then ensues between the pair is so convoluted as to be unbelievable.
Alice’s best friend from college, Eileen, at least has some real-world problems to deal with, on her very low salary, with prickly parents who seem to favour her older sister, and living with a married couple in a barely adequate flat in Dublin. Her relationship with the slightly older Simon, whom she was friends with as a child, is on-again, off-again, and becomes quite exhausting to follow. I did like Eileen on the whole, though; perhaps this is just because she appeared very favourable in comparison to the quite loathsome young author in this novel.
Beautiful World, Where Are You had so many five-star reviews on Goodreads far before it had been released; that’s the kind of author Rooney is. It feels a little odd to add my meagre two-stars to the list, but I pride myself on being honest in my reviews, and I cannot rate it any more highly. I read most of the novel feeling bored at the lack of direction in the plot, and at the infuriating characters. Alice particularly – whom many have indicated is a version of Rooney herself – is not at all likeable.
I still can’t make up my mind as to whether I actually enjoy Rooney’s writing. In Conversations with Friends and Normal People, her style felt fresh, and exciting. Here, the author is clearly trying to come across as more mature and worldly-wise. The prose, in consequence, is both far too matter-of-fact and pretentious, in an imbalanced combination which soon feels rather jolting to read. I did not like this new departure much at all, and whilst there is a marked improvement in the last hundred pages or so, I felt like there was a lot of wading to do before I reached the more readable sections of the novel.
There is a vast detachment throughout from the characters, and some of them do not feel like realistic constructions at all. Even after finishing the novel, I do not really see what the point of Felix was; he was flat, rude, and came with a set of actions and speeches which made no sense in the context of the whole. There is also a real lack of emotion throughout, even through those parts of the narrative which should contain a lot more feeling – for instance, when Alice talks about her time in a psychiatric hospital.
Something which Rooney has been so strong at in her previous work is in writing about the relationships between people, particularly as they change over time, and shift with circumstance. Sadly, this strength seems to be very much lacking in Beautiful World, Where Are You. The relationships between the four – perhaps with the exception of Alice and Eileen toward the end of the novel – just do not feel feasible. The long, drawn-out, and repetitive emails, which Alice and Eileen write to one another throughout, I found ridiculous. These are filled with so much existential angst, and ramble on for pages and pages, constantly repeating their themes. If I received something similar from one of my friends, I think I’d be a bit worried about them.
For me, Beautiful World, Where Are You felt very lacklustre, even vapid. In some places, the novel has far too much to say, and in others its narrative feels rather lost. There are a lot of the same themes to be found here as in Rooney’s previous two novels, but I do not feel as if they are explored quite as well. The style of Rooney’s newest book was not as readable for me, and I found myself having to force my way through some of the chapters – particularly those with Alice and Felix at the fore. I’m honestly not sure that I’ll pick up any of Rooney’s other books in future, so underwhelming did I find this one. Of course, it is great that the author wants to grow, and to change her style to something more mature, but it just wasn’t something that I enjoyed.