Beautiful World, Where Are You review: Sally Rooney's novel asks big questions — and doesn't always have the answers
There's no actual question mark in the title of Beautiful World, Where Are You, maybe because its weary, wary young protagonists have already come to their own grim conclusions: "I think of the 20th century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong," one character confides early on. "Aren't we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended? After that there was no chance for the planet, and no chance for us." And yet! They still argue and struggle and hope — and, this being a Sally Rooney novel, have a lot of semi-explicit and possibly ill-advised sex, the messy consequences of which will steer the narrative for the next 350-plus pages.
Rooney, of course, is the celebrated writer of Normal People and Conversations With Friends, both published before her 30th birthday. Alone, each book was a phenomenon; combined with last year's obsessively watched TV adaptation of Normal (and the coming limited series for Conversations, due to premiere next year), she became something exceedingly rare in an age of itchy digital distraction: a literary novelist who's also a household name.
Beautiful is the first of her works to be at least in part about that — "that" being money and fame and what it feels like to live inside the blast radius of your own sudden, life-obliterating success. And if those disclosures offer sometimes startling insight into its author's deeply rattled state of mind, they do not, alas, always serve her story. Rooney's proxy here is a woman named Alice, a fair-haired Dubliner driven to take up residence in the remote Irish countryside after her own precocious lit-world triumph leads to a psychiatric breakdown. Hardly anyone knows how to even find her on a map aside from her two closest friends: Eileen, an overeducated and underpaid magazine editor, and Simon, an earnestly handsome political activist five years older than them both. Eileen and Simon have long had a thing, though they seem loathe to acknowledge it to each other, or to themselves; Alice is single until she begins seeing Felix — a taciturn local who's shruggingly indifferent to his job in an Amazon-like warehouse, and shows even less interest in the fact that his new would-be girlfriend has her own Wikipedia page. (Though he's still willing to tag along as her plus-one on a work trip to Rome, generously sponsored by her publishers.)
The romantic roundelays and betrayals that ricochet between the foursome form the backbone of the book's scattered plot, such as it is. But much of the story lives in the letters that Alice and Eileen exchange over time — chatty, intimate epistles on faith and politics and sexual identity, the broken institution of marriage and the smoldering trash heap that is social media. There is much despairing discussion of celebrity as a "disfiguring social disease" and beauty as a thing that died in 1976, along with the birth of modern plastics. But Alice's harshest critiques are reserved for herself — or rather, the fun-house mirror of public perception she sees her warped reflection in: "I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. I hate her ways of expressing herself, I hate her appearance, and I hate her opinions about everything. And yet when other people read about her, they believe that she is me. Confronting this fact makes me feel I am already dead."
Alice and the rest of Beautiful's restless youth are exactly the kind of fervent, clever truth seekers that Rooney has made her signature; at its best, the clarity of their presence slices across the page like a hot knife through butter. But the book's millennial cri de coeur can also tip into navel-gazing indulgence, heavy with the undergrad fugue of late night dorm-room debates and clove-cigarette smoke. Their World isn't really new, after all; it's just new to them, spinning at the center as fast as they can. B