Before Beautiful World, Where Are You I had only read about Sally Rooney; I hadn’t read Rooney herself. I didn’t purposely keep away, but I did commit the cardinal sin of not having an opinion of my own. Since the critics told me I should, I thought of her characters as people who interrupt their lives with narratives of political performativity.
Rooney proved me wrong, plucking apart the naïveté that accompanies the thought, “I will change the world” and replacing it with guarded defeatism that chases age. Although ten years older and wiser, Rooney’s characters in Beautiful World, Where Are You, are people like me, people who lament about the lives of those who suffer, co-opting spaces like we’ve experienced their misery when we haven’t. Rooney arrests the irony but doesn’t do much else with it. However, the novel isn’t relatable like a meme your friends forward to your WhatsApp group – it’s universal like sex.
The novel maps the lives of two best friends from college, Alice Kelleher, a novelist, a millionaire “just from books”, and Eileen Lydon, an editor at a literary magazine earning “twenty thousand a year” after tax. Rooney seams their lives with impersonal prose that doesn’t know the characters any more than the readers themselves. Like someone in a restaurant waiting for their guest, ordering a glass of wine for patience, the readers are voyeurs of Alice’s date with Felix Brady, a warehouse worker with an unrestrained mouth that bites, who she believes “absolutely despised” her.
Rooney’s language sets the scene for a date that’s as detached and suspicious as a hotel room rented for a day, charting the beginning of an unexpected relationship that shares the stage with another couple: Eileen and Simon Costigan, a policy adviser working for a left-wing parliamentary group. (I should note that the word choice “couple” is a placeholder as Rooney’s construction of the dynamic between Eileen and Costigan is as delicate as a dandelion). And oh, Simon’s religious.
Despite the meagre three-hour journey separating Ballina and Dublin, Alice and Eileen don’t meet each other throughout most of the story. Rooney rents email correspondence to relocate their friendship from that of roommates. These emails hull the third-person point of view that pivots the novel.
Apart from producing interludes into Alice and Eileen’s thoughts, the emails stretch the story to make space for a different form: the essay. This serves as an amphitheatre where the two women vocalise their opinions on capitalism, communism, aesthetics, including sharing a PDF that Eileen “know(s) for a fact” Alice “will greatly enjoy.”
Rooney’s first-person perspective mimics the voice one would expect of the characters. It draws Alice and Eileen apart when one notices that they never call or meet until the end of the novel, but fastens them closer through the pernickety details that govern each email – they write because they know the other will read and not simply skim.
Their relationships make cameo appearances in the emails, but they’re not as vulnerable with confessions (not to say they’re not at all) as they are in the omniscient point of view. They mention men a lot, but their sentiments about them drip onto the body of their emails like icing on a fat-free cupcake, sparingly.
These men, however, are more than tools of exposition. Rooney slips into their lives through paragraphs that imitate the parallel shot, uniting two different locations together. When Alice takes Felix to Rome on her book tour, despite his curtness towards her, one wonders why anyone would allow such a man to tag along anywhere, let alone Rome. But Rooney’s novel exacts this behaviour as a response to loneliness, masking it as kindness.
“And maybe you want someone to fuck you over and hurt you. At least that would make sense why you would pick me out, because you think I’m the type of person who could do that. Or would want to. She was standing at the sink, saying nothing. Slowly he nodded his head. Well, I’m not going to, he said.”
Their relationship is rickety but not unlikely. Although a drunk Felix asks Alice for sex, he also asks her what words he can use for foreplay and sex. Rooney demonstrates that Felix is an indecent man but not an awful one. His persona and Alice’s need to unwind an explanation forces intimacy to stick across the off points of their “relationship” (Rooney’s telling of their relationship warrants these scare quotes).
Felix is a bisexual, and while some may argue that this detail is an unfired Chekov’s gun, Rooney’s validation (or lack thereof) of his sexuality is novel. She opposes its tokenistic representation, colouring it as vanilla. It is unclear why – but predictable – that Alice and Felix end up together, but this is not a cliché, as their condescension towards each other fuels the tension that sashays between them.
But in Eileen and Simon’s case, tension ripens like a mango during the monsoon. They’ve been friends since childhood. This blooming closeness, an age gap of five years, coupled with Simon’s “Messiah complex” (an accusation by his father, one that Simon’s unwavering need to take care of Eileen affirms), reignites a romance that Eileen resists even after its beginning.
Rooney is careful with providing the reasons for Eileen’s unwillingness to pursue a serious relationship with Simon, so much so that she didn’t feel the need to justify it, as though it’s as normal as a grocery list. And perhaps it is, because people aren’t (always) bound by the typecasting that escorts compatibility.
“It makes me feel very safe and relaxed. Like when I’m complaining to you about something and you call me ‘princess’, that turns me on a little bit. Do you hate me saying that? It just makes me feel like you’re in control of everything, and you won’t let anything bad happen to me.
No, I love that kind of thing. The idea of taking care of you, or you need my help, whatever. I probably have a thing about that anyway. Whenever a girl asks me to open a jam jar, I kind of fall in love with her.
She had the tip of her finger in her mouth. And I thought I was special, she said.”
Beautiful World, Where Are You answers its eponymous, seemingly simple question, uncoiling the mundanity that trails lives, be it of a famous novelist or of an underpaid editor. But the answer is nagging as it presents itself as a soft cashmere sweater – when, in reality, you will snag the fabric with your chipped and anxious fingernail.
Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber.