Much of the novel is composed through emailPhoto by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Walk into any Waterstones in the UK and you’ll be met by a huge blue and yellow poster, and a display table promoting Sally Rooney’s third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You? The book follows two best friends in their late twenties: Alice, a reclusive, famous novelist and Eileen, who works for a pittance at a literary journal. Very few, if any, recent novels have been as widely anticipated as the follow-up to the critically lauded Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), from which the hugely popular BBC series was adapted. But does it live up to the hype?

“All too often, the characters in Beautiful World feel like paper thin sketches serving as mouthpieces for certain themes, rather than engrossing human beings in their own right”

As denoted by its earnest title (taken from a 1788 Friedrich Schiller poem), Beautiful World takes itself far more seriously than either of its predecessors. Much of the novel is epistolary, consisting of lengthy emails sent between Alice and Eileen. These emails in part deal with their personal lives, including Alice’s relationship with warehouse worker Felix, and Eileen’s on and off again relationship with her childhood friend Simon. However, they predominantly consist of intellectual musings, touching on themes as varied as ancient history, Henry James, climate anxiety, biblical tales and late-stage capitalism. Unfortunately, the ‘profound’ results of the friends’ convoluted ponderings are often a slog to get through. Take a typical extract, from the first email in the book: “markets preserve nothing, but ingest all aspects of an existing social landscape and excrete them, shorn of meaning and memory.” Sorry, what? The ideas touched upon are, in principle, interesting and might well preoccupy two intellectual millennials (and the novel’s readers) in their quest to make sense of modern life. However, ultimately, Rooney’s treatment of intellectual friendship reads less like the ‘movement between thought and feeling and back again’ she claims to portray, than as a none-too subtle shoehorning of deep thoughts into the novel — to the detriment of its fluency and believability.

All too often, the characters in Beautiful World feel like paper thin sketches serving as mouthpieces for certain themes, rather than engrossing human beings in their own right. Eileen is an insecure but exceptionally beautiful and intelligent woman, seeking slightly problematic forms of male validation. Sound familiar? That sentence could easily be about Frances or Marianne, protagonists of Rooney’s other novels. While it’s reductive to read Alice as a direct counterpart to Rooney, this disaffected wunderkind of contemporary literature will also be all too familiar to anyone who has read Rooney’s many interviews critiquing the cult of the celebrity novelist (of which she is the prime example).

What Alice has to say is often hilariously cutting, but her witticisms feel like a shiny way for Rooney to deflect from the thornier but more interesting path of real reflection on the theme. It’s as if the author believes merely showing tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of her absurd position equates to properly addressing it, as when she writes ‘If novelists wrote honestly about their lives, no one would read them — and quite rightly!’ When it comes to the unhappiness of Beautiful World’s navel-gazing and (for reasons not sufficiently explored) self-destructive protagonists, we’ve also heard it all before. This extract of Eileen wouldn’t sound out of place in a telenovela: ‘I can’t remember the last time I felt this happy. Any time something really good happens, my life has to fall apart. Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m the one doing it.’

Despite its failings, Beautiful World has moments of startling beauty, which make sifting through the rest more than worthwhile. Rooney has an exceptional, almost poetic flair for conjuring vivid imagery with a bare minimum of words. Here’s Alice’s evocation of Rome in an email to Eileen: ’’There are also dark fragrant orange trees, little white cups of coffee, blue afternoons, golden evenings..” The dialogue is often caustically perfect, if a little too stylised to be believable. Describing Eileen’s sister’s wedding, Rooney weaves gloriously from past to present in a masterful stream-of-consciousness which merits a comparison to Virginia Woolf. The author’s trademark meticulously minute narration can sometimes become monotonous, but it also sharply unearths revelations from the banal. If you’re anything like me, for example, you might find yourself pausing in uncomfortable recognition at this simple, yet brilliant description of Eileen scrolling through social media: “Her expression, her posture, did not vary depending on the information she encountered there: a news report about a horrific natural disaster, a photograph of someone’s beloved pet …”


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Don’t believe the hype, but still read the book. It has gorgeously redeeming moments, but in general it’s so self-conscious as to verge on unreadability. Rooney certainly faced a mighty challenge to locate her voice anew after her astronomical rise to celebrity, but she should have listened to her instincts. Alice writes to Eileen: “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?” Instead of verbosely musing on the state of the world, Rooney would have done better to focus on what she does best and what, for better or for worse, readers of her novels live for: sex and friendship.