‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ by Sally Rooney **

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.


Five Books About Troubled Women

One of my favourite tropes in literature is that of the troubled woman.  She can come from any walk of life; she can be poor or privileged; she can have First World Problems or existential crises.  I seek out these fictional characters, and am often surprised by how realistic they and their problems feel.  I have collected together five books in which I think the troubled woman is shown in all of her complexity, and which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.


1. The New Me by Halle Butler **** 36342706._sy475_
Thirty-year-old Millie just can’t pull it together. Misanthropic and morose, she spends her days killing time at a thankless temp job until she can return home to her empty apartment, where she oscillates wildly between self-recrimination and mild delusion, fixating on all the little ways she might change her life. Then she watches TV until she drops off to sleep, and the cycle begins again.  When the possibility of a full-time job offer arises, it seems to bring the better life she’s envisioning – one that involves nicer clothes, fresh produce, maybe even financial independence – within reach. But with it also comes the paralyzing realization, lurking just beneath the surface, of just how hollow that vision has become. Darkly hilarious and devastating, The New Me is a dizzying descent into the mind of a young woman trapped in the funhouse of American consumer culture.


40611121._sy475_2. Expectation by Anna Hope *****
Hannah, Cate and Lissa are young, vibrant and inseparable. Living on the edge of a common in East London, their shared world is ablaze with art and activism, romance and revelry – and the promise of everything to come. They are electric. They are the best of friends.  Ten years on, they are not where they hoped to be. Amidst flailing careers and faltering marriages, each hungers for what the others have. And each wrestles with the same question: what does it take to lead a meaningful life?  Expectation is a novel of the highs and lows of friendship – how it can dip, dive and rise again. It is also about finding your way: as a mother, a daughter, a wife, a rebel. Most of all, it explores that liminal space between expectation and reality, the place – full of dreams, desires and pain – in which we all live our lives.


3. Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey **** 53095648._sx318_sy475_
You know you’re strange and wrong. You’ve known it from the beginning.   This is the voice that rings in your ears. That worries you never say the right thing and you’re probably a disappointment to your parents. That you’re a far cry from pretty – and your thoughts are ugly too. It says no one will ever like you just as you are.  But you know what it is to laugh with your best friend until your stomach hurts, to feel the first delicious tingles of attraction, to take exquisite pleasure in the goriness of your ingrowing toenail.  There is a place for you out there. You just need to find it.  Tennis Lessons is the unflinchingly honest story of one misfit and her uncertain journey to something like happiness. Stopping by each year along the way, she navigates disastrous dates, dead pets, crashed cars, best friends and lost loves. Susannah Dickey reminds us that we’re all a bit weird. And that’s just fine.


40648401._sy475_4. Normal People by Sally Rooney *****
At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers – one they are determined to conceal.  A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.  Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.


5. Disobedience by Naomi Alderman *** 202677._sy475_
A small, close-knit Orthodox Jewish community in London is the setting for a revealing look at religion and sexuality in Alderman’s frank yet heartfelt debut novel, Disobedience. The story begins with the death of the community’s esteemed rabbi, which sets in motion plans for a memorial service and the search for a replacement. The rabbi’s nephew and likely successor, Dovid, calls his cousin Ronit in New York to tell her that her father has died. Ronit, who left the community long ago to build a life for herself as a career woman, returns home when she hears the news, and her reappearance exposes tears in the fabric of the community.  Steeped in Jewish philosophy and teachings, Disobedience is a perceptive and thoughtful exploration of the laws and practices that have governed Judaism for centuries, and continue to hold sway today. Throughout the novel, Alderman retells stories from the Torah — Judaism’s fundamental source — and the interplay between these tales and the struggles of the novel’s unique characters wields enormous power and wisdom, and will surely move readers to tears.


Three Favourites: Norah Lange, Sally Rooney, and Lauren Groff

people-at-the-roomPeople in the Room by Norah Lange
I purchased Argentinian author Norah Lange’s novella, People in the Room, after randomly coming across it during a weekly browse of the Kindle store.  Much to my dismay, I have read very little Argentinian fiction, and would like to remedy this.  Lange’s novel – which is, as far as I am aware, the only piece of her work currently available in English translation – sounded fascinating.

The introduction, written by Cesar Aira, is both insightful and interesting, despite the fact that it gave quite a lot of the story away.  I loved Lange’s writing style and its translation into English felt fluid.  I loved the way in which almost all of the characters remained unnamed, and the element of obsession was so well handled.

I found People in the Room to be unsettling and beguiling in equal measure. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and could feel the claustrophobia closing in as it went on.  The tension in the novel is almost palpable.  I’m not sure that I have ever read anything quite like People in the Room before, and it is certainly a book which will stay with me for a very long time.


Normal People by Sally Rooney 9780571334650
I was a little sceptical about picking up Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, due to the sheer amount of hype which it has been getting since its publication. I have been disappointed before by novels which many others have raved about, and am therefore a little wary whenever I see the same cover splashed over blogs and BookTube. However, I need not have worried.  Normal People is wonderfully perceptive, and I got a feel for its two main characters, Connell and Marianne, immediately. There is a lot of dark content here, which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses, and I cared immensely for the protagonists.

The structure which Rooney has adopted here was effective, and kept me interested throughout. I admired the fact that she focuses in such detail upon relationships, and the ways in which they can shift. There are some very topical issues which have been tackled well here. Whilst I was a little disappointed by the ending, which I felt was a little too twee to match the tone of the rest of the book, Rooney’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and her characters so real, that I could not give this anything other than a five star rating.

Normal People is incredibly immersive; beware, and only pick it up if you have a whole afternoon free to spend in its company. I read this in two sittings, as I could barely put it down, and am now incredibly excited to get to her debut, Conversations with Friends.


91gogy5bsxlFlorida by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff has been one of my favourite authors for years now.  I have always been astounded by how much atmosphere she creates, and yet how succinct her writing still is.  The stories in her newest collection, Florida, have the US state at their centre, ‘its landscape, climate, history and state of mind’ are what each character and each plot revolve around.  I love collections with a centralised heart like this, and loved being able to revisit Florida without having to take another eight-hour flight.

Showcasing eleven stories in all, and coming in at less than 300 pages, Florida is a truly masterful collection.  Groff demonstrates her insight and understanding of the diverse state in which she lives, and the sense of place which she creates is always highly evocative.  In ‘Ghosts and Empties’, for example, she writes: ‘The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.  We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead…  Feral cats dart underfoot, birds-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.’  In this story, we are walked through what was once a poor neighbourhood, but which is beginning to gentrify.

Groff showed me a Florida which I was largely unaware of in these stories, and which I haven’t seen with my own eyes.  Tales are set in Florida during the cool wintertime, as well as in areas which I haven’t visited – the Everglades, for instance.  The darker side of life nestles up against the bright vibrancy which tourists see.  Never is Groff’s version of the Sunshine State sugarcoated; she shows poverty, homelessness, abandonment, neglect, and death.  Throughout, she challenges perceptions, and she does this so well.

One never knows what will happen in one of Groff’s stories, and this collection shows just how strong a writer she is.  Each tale is perfectly formed, and together they provide a kaleidoscopic view of a state at once beautiful and wild.  As anyone familiar with her work will know, she uses magical realism to perfection.  Florida is a wonderful short story collection, and one which I cannot recommend enough.


‘Conversations with Friends’ by Sally Rooney ****

Particularly since finishing Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, I had been eager to pick up her debut, Conversations with Friends.  The novel, which is set in Dublin and rural France, follows four friends – students Frances and Bobbi, and married couple Nick and Melissa – ‘who ask each other endless questions’.  The conversations between the four take place both in person and online, and cover myriad topics – ‘sex and friendship, art and literature, politics and gender, and, of course, one another.’ 97805713342472

The novel’s blurb suggests that Rooney’s book can be read in any number of ways: as a romantic comedy, as a feminist work, as something which exposes both intimacy and infidelity, or with regard to the way in which our minds consider and place our physical bodies.  It has been highly praised by critics since its publication in 2017; Sara Baume calls it ‘a novel of spine-tingling salience’, and Gavin Corbett ‘an essential read from an astonishing new talent’.  Colin Barrett compares Rooney to both J.D. Salinger and Bret Easton Ellis.

Conversations with Friends is narrated by Frances, a young woman who has just completed her third year at University in Dublin.  Bobbi has been her best friend since the pair met at the strict convent school which they attended.  At the outset of the novel, after a poetry reading, Frances and Bobbi have been invited to writer and photographer Melissa’s home; at this point, she tells us: ‘I was excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s house, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming.’  At the house, they meet Nick, who they already knew was an actor: ‘He and Melissa were frequently photographed together at events and we had friends of friends who had met them.  He had a big, handsome face and looked like he could comfortably pick Melissa up under one arm and fend off interlopers with the other.’

Frances and Nick strike up a secretive email conversation after their first meeting, and then, later on, share a kiss at a party.  Before this moment occurs, Rooney writes: ‘Eventually Nick looked over and I looked back.  I felt a key turning hard inside my body, turning so forcefully that I could do nothing to stop it.  His lips parted like he was about to say something, but he just inhaled and then seemed to swallow.  Neither of us gestured or waved, we just looked at one another, as if we were already having a private conversation that couldn’t be overhead.’

The pair soon embark upon an affair, meeting up as often as possible in Frances’ flat, or Nick’s home when Melissa is absent.  Rooney hones in on the emotional conflict which this creates.  When Frances first sleeps with Nick, for instance, she writes: ‘Little tears had started slipping out of my eyes and down onto the pillow.  I wasn’t sad, I didn’t know why I was crying.  I’d had this problem before, with Bobbi, who believed it was an expression of my repressed feelings.  I couldn’t stop the tears so I just laughed self-effacingly instead, to show that I wasn’t invested in the crying.  I knew I was embarrassing myself badly, but there was nothing I could do about it.’

I found Frances to be a lifelike character.  She is built of quirks and complexities, and is all the more recognisable for it: ‘I felt restless, the way you feel when you’ve already done the wrong thing and you’re anxious about what the outcome to be.’  She has a lot to deal with in her life – an alcoholic father, a mother who lives rather far away, and whom she does not see very often, and a diminishing sense of self-worth – and her responses to different situations feel authentic.  She is, throughout, coming to terms with herself and her future, which she has absolutely no plans for.  I found her an amusing construct, and, at times, quite admirable in her beliefs, and the way in which she voices them.

The title is a little misleading, in that not all of Rooney’s characters could be classified as friends.  Bobbi and Nick do not even pretend to get on with one another, and Frances and Melissa are both hideously jealous of one another at points.  Frances even has a waveringly negative opinion of Bobbi, who is the only constant character who is there for her in the novel.  At the outset, she reflects that at school: ‘Nobody liked her.  She got temporarily suspended once for writing “Fuck the patriarchy” on the wall beside a plaster cast of the crucifixion.’  After the two become a couple, and then amicably split up, they remain firm friends, moving to Dublin together for University.

As with Normal People, I got a feel for the quite complex and realistic characters immediately.  I found Frances particularly fascinating, and could never quite guess what she was going to do next; there were psychological depths to her character.  The others, however, did not pique my interest anywhere near as much as Frances did.  What I found most interesting was the way in which they interacted, and the ways in which their relationships with one another changed so dramatically as the novel went on.  Rooney has built a lot of tension between her characters, and it feels as though she completely understands them, and their motives.

As one might expect, the novel is almost saturated in different forms of conversation. The relationships between the four characters play out through different mediums – instant messaging, text messaging, in person, or through messages sent between two characters by an interlocutor.  This element could so easily have been overdone, but I felt as though Frances’ narrative voice pulls everything together well.

In Conversations with Friends, Rooney explores so many topics: masculinity, sexuality, youth, naivety, (in)experience, relationships, and growing up, amongst others.  It is a rich novel, which offers a lot to draw upon and consider.  Many of the scenes which Rooney has constructed are emotionally charged, particularly when Nick and Frances’ affair comes to a head.  In some ways, the novel has a different feel to it than Normal People; it is sadder at times, and feels a little more serious, even pretentious.  Whilst I found the novel compelling, Conversations with Friends was not a compulsive read for me, as I found Normal People to be.

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