Banal. Self-serving. Overrated. Likeable. Memorable.
It's always fascinating when a novelist's work is polarizing: people either love it or hate it. These were some of the responses I received on telling people I was reading Irish author Sally Rooney's latest work.
Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber & Faber Limited) released to much fanfare and anticipation this month. Her earlier two novels received glowing reviews " Normal People was adapted into a TV show. This was my first encounter with her work and I was intrigued.
I didn't expect a page turner, but I didn't expect a struggle to turn the pages.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is about two Irish friends, Alice and Eileen. Alice is a writer who attains success with her last book but is tired of fame; she's also just out of psychiatric care. Eileen works for a literary magazine in Dublin and is recovering from heartbreak. The novel follows the two of them and their love interests over the span of a year as they weave in and out of each other's lives. Alice meets Felix on a dating app and on a whim invites him to Rome with her (paying for his tickets). Eileen stalks her ex's profiles on social media while finding comfort in the arms and bed of her childhood friend, the Catholic and very charming Simon.
If you are searching for a substantial plot, Beautiful World¦ has none.
The characters live, have sex, go to parties, and ruminate on 'worldly' things. There's nothing unique about their lives or their feelings: Heartbreak. Hating your job. Family problems. Coming to terms with sexuality. Social anxiety. Loneliness.
These are very white characters, as are their problems. It's easy to talk about the identity of minorities or discussions on the working-class while sipping wine at birthday parties or taking off to Rome on a whim without worrying about responsibilities. Alice (who many say is modelled on the author herself) is a fleshed-out character: riddled with self-doubt, contemplating on the meaning of achieving success you envisioned and yet being dissatisfied by it; she has contempt for the world at large and herself. The others, in comparison, don't get enough space to tell their stories " they exist mainly in relation to her. They're all self-aware, acknowledging their white privilege in a way that makes them sound progressive but actually comes across as condescending. They discuss politics but not in a way that actually resonates or offers contemplation. Felix, especially, doesn't come across as a particularly positive character and it is difficult to see how their pairing works: he ghosts her, turns up at her house drunk and asking for sex, and is usually scornful of her and her life.
Rooney looks at her characters from afar, describing in minute detail their daily lives, sometimes pairing disparate scenes against each other in an attempt to possibly highlight the differences between their lives.
Expectedly, there's tension: the class divide between Alice the millionaire and Felix the warehouse worker; Eileen's desire to fall in love but also protect herself from getting hurt; both friends thinking the other hasn't invested enough into the relationship. This tension doesn't bubble up and overflow, it just falls over, resolved immediately with quips and tears. The book is at its most readable and compelling when the four characters finally meet: only then does their communication feel real.
Alice and Eileen communicate largely via email and it is here that Rooney goes all intellectual. The email exchanges make up much of the book and gives the characters the opportunity to indulge in witty, sometimes profound, ruminations on the Bronze Age, the collapse of human civilisation, the commodification of art and how their lives of easy consumption are made possible by the misery of millions.
Alice's scathing takes on contemporary novelists is refreshing, and finds some resonance in the Indian publishing scene. "If novelists wrote honestly about their own lives, no one would read novels." "Why do they pretend to be obsessed with death and grief and fascism " when really they're obsessed with whether their latest book will be reviewed in The New York Times?" "They know nothing about ordinary life. Most of them haven't so much as glanced up against the real world in decades."
Rooney's writing is precise, with simple sentences and much description. She sets up scenes like they were in a play, describing an apartment before and after its occupant enters it. She goes into details about actions: for instance, people don't go online, they "tap the icon of a social media app". It's an unusual style of prose that works at time, and gets extremely tedious soon. Often, the novel comes across as trying to poke holes in itself. Except, all it does is deflate.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is essentially a love story. Two love stories, to be numerically correct. Because, as the friends discuss in their email, love and sex are the only things that count. If you treat the book as such, it may not be as disappointing, and the ending will sit nicely in your head. Many have called Rooney the voice of the millennial woman. Her voice may be familiar, but I don't find her speaking my language.