General Fiction

Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You

Title: Beautiful World, Where Are You
Author: Sally Rooney
Page Count: 368
Publication: September 2021

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find it at your local library]

Note: If you are looking for a traditional review, let me point you to The New York Times,  Washington Post, and NPR as you will not find that here.

You’d be hard pressed in the beginning of September to not find either a glowing review or an ad for Beautiful World, Where Are You, the Irish wunderkind Sally Rooney’s third book. You may remember her from Normal People (now a series on Hulu which made me ugly cry) and Conversations with Friends. I’ve read both and enjoyed them. Rooney’s first two books were both widely acclaimed hence the “wunderkind” moniker since she’s barely broken 30 with three successful books under her belt and while I’m nearing 50 and find it difficult to maintain a chapter of my own fiction. Some days, I hate the bitch.

One thing that hung in the air between me and the book is how prescient Beautiful World, Where Are You must encapsulate echoes of Rooney’s own life. One of the main characters is Alice, a tortured novelist whose first two books were beyond successful and she hops from literary festivals winning literary prizes, where she feels exhausted and overwhelmed after each event. The weight of her fame and her inability to access her own self, or accessing it too much, lead to her nervous breakdown where she now recovers on Ireland’s western coast where she knocks around in a big and drafty rental house.

I wondered as I continued on with BWWAY if this was not Rooney’s way of communicating that yes, she writes wonderfully nuanced, Hemingway like prose that suffers from lots of acclaim and as one person put it about BWWAY, “Twilight for literary lovers.” How must, or can, one person take that level of scrutiny success and noise because they happened to write beautiful and nuanced stories that capture the heart of the current climate both politically, emotionally, and mentally?

What is that like, I wondered as I read to be Rooney: did she think she would become this successful or was she merely filling a gaping void she saw that needed some kind of plug? Was BWWAY a way to communicate to her critics that look, you’re putting me under a lot of stress and I’m on the verge here so fuck off – which seems entirely possible. Was Eileen, Alice’s best friend, a stand in for someone or something? Rooney is notoriously private and is not on social media which seems difficult to comprehend in this day and age. Granted my partner is also not on social media and I often have to explain what and how to him networks work but he’s a 42 year old body with a 105 year old mind. What is also odd is that social media,  hell the internet as a whole, is the way that authors work and communicate. The notorious aesthete Salman Rushdie is on Twitter. Paulo Coelho has over 2 million followers on Instagram. These are two men over 60 who are cultivating a following while producing literary prize work. And it’s not just Rushdie and Coelho but award winning authors such as Margaret Atwood interacts with her 2M fans on Twitter and the estate of Ursula K. Le Guin keeps her alive on Twitter and Instagram.

Where is Rooney? Does it really matter if she’s on the internet or not?

Let’s cut to the chase: Should you read BWWAY? Yes. Her prose is clear and accessible. The lives of Alice and Eileen and Felix and Simon are recognizable. The questions Rooney asks, outside of telling her critics to fuck off, are relatable. But keep in mind that the frailty of her characters could be a symptom of the world as they struggle to figure it out themselves. The older generations have left us younger ones with a mess and finding the beauty in the world is a small and grand feat at once. Take slow deep breaths, do not get sucked into how BWWAY pacing has you turning pages with haste, and relish that the beautiful world is out there and we need to just look and appreciate it.