After a huge debut, two worldwide bestsellers, and two screenplay adaptations, Irish writer Sally Rooney is back to writing. Published in 2021, Beautiful World, Where Are You might be the question the two main characters of the book ask each other while searching for something meaningful in their lives. On a deeper level, it seems to be the question the author asked herself in order to write a story again.
The plot runs on two tracks or on two different computer screens. On one screen there is Alice, a successful writer who has moved to the countryside after a psychic breakdown. She is trying to get back on track with her life and career, and her snooty persona lightly recalls an updated Arturo Bandini from Ask the Dust (1939) by John Fante, as well as Frances from Conversations with Friends by Rooney (2017). On the other screen, there is introverted Eileen, Alice’s best friend since university. Stuck in an over-priced shared apartment in Dublin and in an underpaid job, she is recovering from her last breakup.
Each story has its own chapters, each interspersed with the emails one character sends to the other. Alice updates Eileen about her life in isolation, her book tour, but mostly about her new date, Felix. He is coldhearted casually involved local guy, with whom it is so easy to talk as it is difficult to share feelings.
In her emails, Eileen reveals her sense of loneliness and hopelessness. She tells Alice about her relationship with her childhood friend, Simon. He is an older man, devoted, but always in and out of relationships with stunning young girls. Although she doesn’t approve of Simon’s lifestyle, she shares a deep love bond with him, even if in fits and starts. Both friends live their love stories with passion but with the uncertainty that qualifies Rooney’s characters. The uncertainty is always trying to sabotage them and all their relationships. Even their friendship staggers: they keep questioning each other’s affection until they finally discuss it face to face.
Changing point of views
The echo of Frances and Nick’s relationship in Conversations with Friends and Marianne and Connell’s one in Normal People is palpable. Readers, who read Rooney, might be able to acknowledge what happens after the two previous novels by Rooney, since Alice and Eileen’s stories look like their sequel, set a few years later.
Just like her characters are getting older, also her way of narrating their stories feels more thoughtful and less frantic in Beautiful World, Where Are You. As the poet she used to be, Rooney seems to be drawing a solid structure, almost like she is writing a sonnet instead of a novel:
A – Alice’s chapter
B – Alice’s e-mail
A – Eileen’s chapter
B – Eileen’s e-mail
Following this structure, the readers live the story twice. The first time, they live it as it happens, from an external perspective; the second time, they get to know the two main characters, reading their own side of the story, their thoughts, and their unexpressed feelings, as well as their long political and sociological digressions.
As happens to watch Hagai Levi‘s Golden Globes winner The Affair, readers appreciate the story and the details from different points of view, allowing them to create their own version of reality.
Beauty in a new and mature form
Quoting the 1788 German poem Schöne Welt, wo bist du? by Friedrich Schiller, Beautiful World, Where Are You might be the exhortative title Rooney chose to evolve herself. While still being the same vivid, spontaneous and sharp writer she has become famous for, she shows a more mature style with this novel.
Despite being a mirror of the author’s political views (she never hid her democratic views and support for the Palestinians, for example as she turned down an offer from an Israeli publisher), the emails Alice and Eileen’s exchange are not just a writing gimmick to talk about the evolution of labor and family during capitalism. They are the actual innovation in Rooney’s narrative, that helps readers not to frantically go through her novel like they did in the past. Reading Beautiful World, Where Are You takes time to value every word, to reflect, to immerse into the relational dynamics, and to find beauty in the world.
I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi, remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me.