Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a distribution warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend Eileen is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.
Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young – but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?
For those of you who haven’t yet heard of Irish novelist Sally Rooney, she’s the critically acclaimed author of Conversations with Friends and Normal People, the latter of which became a literary sensation, earning Rooney a slew of awards including a place on the 2018 Booker longlist. Normal People was also adapted into a hit TV series, for which Rooney herself received an Emmy nomination.
Now she returns with her highly anticipated third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, which is being described as the literary event of the year. So, does it live up to the hype? Yes, in spades.
Unlike her previous books, which followed the struggles of younger, university-aged students, the characters in Beautiful World are on the cusp of thirty and experiencing all the angst that comes with this. Told in Rooney’s distinctive prose – minimalistic yet luminous – the novel follows Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon as they navigate love, sex, and relationships while worrying about the larger political climate. They are not the self-absorbed, social-media obsessed millennials we’re used to hearing about, but socially conscious individuals trying to make their way through a broken world.
In no way is this more apparent than through a series of email exchanges between friends Alice and Eileen. These conversations, which sometimes span chapters, cover everything from Western privilege to the contemporary novel as a cultural form, the collapse of systems in the Bronze Age to current political and climate disasters. In these same emails, the friends also discuss relationships, sex, and the triviality of worrying about relationships and sex amid these larger issues. As Alice writes: ‘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?’ These conversations are profound and open-ended, leaving us with more questions than answers, yet they also represent how so many of us view the world – through both the personal and the political. It’s a lot of ground to cover, yet Rooney manages it with ease.
This is Rooney’s most ambitious work to date, blending romance and emotional drama with larger conversations about the state of the world and our place in it. With Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney has delivered yet another intelligent and nuanced piece of contemporary fiction.