Book review – “Beautiful World Where Are You” by Sally Rooney

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a work trip to London. I’d bought a copy of the very newly minted Sally Rooney novel Beautiful World, Where Are You which had been published earlier that week amid great excitement (there were queues and bookshops were opened at midnight to enable the keenest readers to get their hands on a copy). Whilst in London I also happened to stumble on a ‘pop-up’ in Shoreditch selling not only the novel, but other books to which there are references in the novel, and some merchandise echoing the design of the book’s cover. This book has surely been the most anticipated of the year, and who can blame the publishers, but it has definitely become a ‘product’. As has the author I suspect. I hope she is okay.

I sort of hoped I might devour the novel on the return train trip to London, but I didn’t and in fact it took me a further week or so to finish it. Rooney’s previous novel, Normal People, was a sensation, not least because of the success of the television series, one suspects, which was brilliantly put together with brilliant performances from the two wonderful new young Irish actors playing the lead parts. It was all a moment of pure serendipity and it was a joy that something so good got the attention it deserved.

Rooney’s follow-up novel therefore was always going to be a challenge and I admire her for just getting the thing out under what must have been intense pressure. It is unmistakeably Rooney – the beautiful prose, the masterful dialogue, the introspective characters, Dublin, the palpable tensions between the characters and the things unsaid. There are four characters: Alice, a successful, famous and thus fairly wealthy author (hmm) who has recently had a nervous breakdown and whom we meet when she is renting a seaside house in the country. Felix, her lover, whom she meets on Tinder, a warehouse worker and cash-strapped under-achiever. Eileen, who lives in Dublin and is Alice’s best friend from childhood. Eileen works for a publishing company in a junior role which pays poorly. She is intellectually and emotionally unfulfilled, and bitter at the hand life has dealt her. Simon is Alice and Eileen’s friend, also from their youth, but a little older, a political researcher he lives in Dublin too. He is single, but seems to have a series of much younger girlfriends, handsome, gentle and compassionate, with a strong Catholic faith.

Much of the novel is an exchange of long and detailed communications between Alice and Eileen. They are more like letters, the kind that middle class people of previous centuries might have exchanged, full of lengthy discourse on the meaning of life, love, sex, career, fame and mental health, cleverly punctuated with much more prosaic gossipy tidbits on their love lives. These of course are emails, though, not letters. In between the letters chapters we follow the various events of the characters’ lives, primarily Eileen’s gradual descent into personal crisis and her relationship with Simon, and Alice’s recovery and unlikely relationship with Felix.

It is some way into the book before the characters collide, when Simon travels with Eileen to visit Alice at her rural retreat. The weekend is a kind of catharsis for them all. Everything must break before it can be reassembled in a meaningful way.

If you are expecting a re-run of Normal People you will get some of the same things – a good deal of sex, middle-class angst and working-class insecurity, and a grown-up exploration of Irish identity in the 21st century. But it is a very different book. There are surely some autobiographical elements. It has a lot less pace and it seems a long time before anything significant happens. This novel is a much slower burn. I liked it but I didn’t love it. I did not care as much about any of the characters as I did about Marianne and Connell. I think it is the book Sally Rooney needed to write though, good enough to follow Normal People but perhaps not quite as good, so that, one hopes, some of the hype around her dissipates and she can get on with being a brilliant author and not have to worry about being a celebrity.

I think it will always be worth reading what Sally Rooney writes, so I have no hesitation in recommending this book.

I got a copy! (The publication of Sally Rooney’s new novel)

Last week, the books and publishing industry got itself into the biggest lather that I have seen since before the pandemic. In fact, the last time I can remember such excitement was almost exactly two years ago when Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), was published. I did not, like some, form an orderly queue outside a participating bookshop to buy my copy on the stroke of midnight Tuesday, 7 September. I managed to hang on until Thursday before succumbing!

Have you got your copy of the biggest book of the year yet?

I was working in London at the weekend and decided it would be a good opportunity to read the book on the train. I imagined that I would devour it in a couple of sittings. I didn’t and am still only about halfway through. You may be wondering if that tells you something about how I feel about the book, but you will have to wait until I have finished it before getting my full and considered opinion.

Reception of the book so far has been positive, but with acknowledgement of the difficulties of producing work that reaches the same dizzying heights as her first two books: Anthony Cummins in The Guardian senses the difficulties the author has had writing this novel in “the glare of expectation”. John Williams in the New York Times, hates the book’s title, but mostly loves what is inside the covers, especially the author’s partly-ironic exploration of what must certainly be the autobiographical elements. He finds parts of the novel clichéd, but acknowledges the impossible situation this young (Rooney is still only 30) author is in and admires what she has achieved. The Independent gave it three stars out of five.

Sally Rooney has cited Natalia Ginzburg’s Little Virtues as an influence on her work

By chance I heard that there would be a special ‘pop-up’ event in east London, close to where I was going to be working, so I took the opportunity to go along on Saturday afternoon. A huge mural replicating the book’s cover had been painted on the outside of the venue, so it was impossible to miss. That was the highlight really; inside was a sparse,rather bleak windowless room, up some shabby stairs, with the books laid out on a couple of cloth-covered tables. The impromptu bookshop, was a joint venture between Waterstones and Faber, Rooney’s publisher. The super-enthusiastic young staff was selling copies of the novel, plus some books that Rooney had selected based on her influences for the work. I was also told I would get a free canvas bag and some ‘merch’ (badges and bookmarks) if I bought the book there and then. I said this was unlucky as I had already purchased it two days before. This did not generate the desired response; I was not offered a freebie in acknowledgement of my support. Even more disappointingly, I purchased two of “Rooney’s recommendations”, but only the main act entitled me to some ‘merch’. Shame. I would have liked a bookmark.

So, I got a bit caught up in the hype. I went along to the ‘pop-up event’ hoping some sort of magic might rub off on me. Unlike some other customers I saw, all looking like the millennials who are the main subject of the novel, I did not do a selfie with the shop mural in the background. I came away feeling slightly suckered. And hoping that this had been the publisher’s and not the author’s doing, that she had no control over how the book was marketed.

Indeed. The ‘pop-up’ event in Shoreditch, London, last weekend

I hope for her sake, Sally Rooney’s third novel is more ‘moderately’ successful than Normal People, and that she can then get on with what she does best, writing books. Does Beautiful World, Where Are You live up to the hype? I’ll let you know next week!

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