Sally Rooney Tricked Me Into Reading a Christian Novel with No Paragraphs
Beautiful World, Where Are You takes on God and gratitude
Let’s get this out of the way right now: I love Sally Rooney. I arrived at her work at the perfect time, in February 2019. Conversations With Friends had been out for two years; I read it breathlessly after it was recommended to me by a polyamorous yoga instructor I went out for coffee with exactly twice. I bought Normal People a month later, still in its hardcover release, weeping in my basement apartment while reading it, wanting Marianne and Connell to just make it work, goddamnit!
As an ardent lover of character-driven contemporary fiction, I was blown away by the fact that someone only four years older than I had so accurately captured a very specific millennial experience yet to be represented in the mainstream literary world. I preached the Gospel of Sally to both friends and strangers alike, asking “Have you read Sally Rooney yet?” in the same way a missionary would ask would-be believers if they’d ever considered accepting Christ as their personal Lord and savior.
When it was announced in January of this year that a new Rooney was going to be released, a tingle went up my spine. At the same time, my stomach sank. Would she be able to recapture the magic of her first two novels?
By the book description, “Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young - but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they worry about sex and friendship and the world they live,” it seemed like the book would deliver more of Rooney’s favourite subjects: millennial ennui and intimacy in the hook-up age.
And it does. I just didn’t really like it that much.
Before I continue, let me promise you that I am not trying to be contrarian for contrarian’s sake. There is a lot of Sally Rooney Discourse, namely because she is one of the youngest and most-read bestselling writers of our time. The more people who read your books, the more people there are to fight about them online.
I went into Beautiful World, Where Are You hoping to love it instantly and consider it her best work yet. I knew I was going to write this review weeks ago, and I wanted it to be glowing. I even pre-ordered a signed hardcover copy! Sadly, I was disappointed, the first time that Rooney has truly let me down.
In her signature style, the novel follows four millennial Irish friends as they navigate their friendships, romantic relationships, and sexual desires with one another. Whereas Rooney’s previous protagonists – Frances and Bobbi of Conversations With Friends, Marianne and Connell of Normal People – are still undergrads, Alice, Eileen, Felix, and Simon are older, in their late 20s, with the latter being in his late 30s.
Similar to her previous novels, the core of Rooney’s plots come from the relationships between her characters. In this novel, this falls into three dynamics: the strained friendship between Alice and Eileen, and the romantic and sexual relationships between Alice and Felix, and Eileen and Simon.
Without a doubt, the most interesting relationship in the novel is that between Alice and Eileen, which, considering the fact that half the book is structured as a series of emails written back and forth between the two, it should be. Through their letters to each other, we learn that Alice and Eileen became friends while attending university in Dublin.
Although Eileen was initially considered smarter and more successful in college, the tables turn post-graduation when Alice, working in a coffee shop, starts writing a novel. A year later, Alice sells it for $250,000, while Eileen makes barely a tenth of that at her job copy-editing for a literary magazine.
When I first felt the tension between Alice and Eileen in their emails, I was intrigued. It reminded me not only of Bobbi and Frances in Conversations With Friends but of Elena and Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.
However, the tension between the two never reaches an emotional climax in the same way as it does in these other works. While it’s clear that Eileen is jealous of what she feels are Alice’s undeserved riches, the tension between the two is so subtle and drawn out that it never reaches a satisfying conclusion, even after Alice confronts Eileen in person.
And then, there are the emails themselves, which make up half the novel. While several critics have applauded these sections and consider them to be the most interesting part, I found them quite dull to read. This is likely because I never felt truly invested in the stakes of the relationship between Alice and Eileen, and it struck me as unbelievable that friends who were this strained would write long, philosophical emails to each other. Even though many have applauded Rooney’s essay-like style in the emails, I found them to be existential navel-gazing about topics like plastic consumption and the end of the Late Bronze Age.
Additionally, there are several passages where Rooney seems to be sharing her own thoughts in a way that feels, to put it in current parlance, cringe. The character of Alice, a bestselling celebrity millennial novelist, is a thinly veiled cipher for Rooney (although Rooney stated in an interview with The New York Times that she is now far more famous than Alice is).
In her emails to Eileen, Alice often reflects on the state of what it means to be a mainstream writer. In one email, Alice poignantly asks, “What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway?” However, these sections oscillate between self-awareness on Rooney’s part and simultaneously feeling secondhand embarrassment for her. In one email, Alice tells Eileen,
“Have I told you I can’t read contemporary novels anymore? I think it’s because I know too many of the people who write them. I see them all the time at festivals, drinking red wine and talking about who’s publishing in New York. Complaining about the most boring things in the world – not enough publicity, or bad reviews, or someone else making more money. Who cares? And then they go away and write their sensitive little novels about ‘ordinary life.’ The truth is they know nothing about ordinary life. Most of them haven’t so much as glanced against the real world in decades.”
While she may have been trying to make a statement about 21st-century publishing, sadly, sections like these often come across as self-aggrandizing concerns that Rooney, a multi-millionaire celebrity novelist, could have simply journaled about privately instead of putting in a novel that I, a humble peasant, paid $35 for.
Then there are the romantic relationships. Let’s start with that between Eileen and Simon, a 30-something parliamentary assistant. Early in the novel, we learn that Eileen and Simon were neighbours growing up, although Simon was several years older than Eileen. As they both age, their relationship has a “Will they, won’t they?” quality to it that Marianne and Connell also had.
However, the palpable star-crossed lovers energy of Normal People is completely absent here, with the relationship between Eileen and Simon coming across as simply infuriating. Eileen hooks up with Simon even though she knows he is in an open relationship with another woman, and then gets mad at him that he won’t dump her. Then, when he reveals his life-long love for her, she tells him they should just be friends. Get it together, Eileen!
The other romantic relationship occurs between Alice and Felix, a late 20s warehouse worker. I hate to say this, but out of all three of her novels, Felix is Rooney’s most poorly written character. While she has written three queer female characters before, Felix is Rooney’s first attempt at writing a bisexual man.
He is also the most working-class and least intellectual character Rooney has ever tried to write. For the majority of the novel, Felix is most interested in Tinder hook-ups and drinking, even revealing to Alice that his most shameful secret is getting a teenage girl pregnant. Sadly, he comes across as a caricature, and his relationship with Alice, a novelist, feels not only flat but bizarre.
And here’s where this review gets weird: The best part of this novel was the Christian themes of God and gratitude. Believe me, as a queer ex-Catholic woman, I did not see this being my opinion, and yet, here we are.
One of Simon’s only character traits in the novel is that he believes in God and is a devout Christian, even attending Mass every Sunday. The other characters do not understand why he does this, and even politely poke fun at him for doing so. Still, Alice and Eileen in their emails ask each other if their lives would be easier if they simply believed in God as Simon does.
In one email, Eileen writes about her old gratitude journal, in which she used to write a line every day about what she was thankful for. Eileen tells Alice that she’s sad she fell off this habit, and wonders if she’s now the type of person who no longer notices or appreciates beauty in the world. Yet, she also writes to Alice:
“I had no idea you had been reading the Bible in hospital. What made you want to do that? And did you find it helpful? I thought it was very interesting what you said about the forgiveness of sins. I asked Simon the other night whether he prays to God, and he told me yes - ‘to say thank you.’ And I think if I believed in God, I wouldn't want to prostrate myself before him and ask for forgiveness. I would just want to thank him every day, for everything.”
This idea of gratitude and God reappears in the final quarter of the novel, as the four characters are united at Alice’s house in the countryside for a holiday. In this section, describing the scenery, Rooney’s prose often takes on the form of a gratitude journal, with her noting particular details that the characters feel grateful to see, feel and hear; “The smell of hot plastic and stale cigarette smoke, Thin Lizzy on the radio, a crackle of static,” Rooney writes, describing a mundane car ride to the beach. This theme was the most surprising and strongest element of the novel and felt like a more mature Rooney writing and reflecting on how it feels to be alive now.
But, my God, she could have used some paragraphs to do it! While some readers have long been frustrated with her lack of quotation marks around dialogue, Rooney takes it up a level in this story, frequently abandoning paragraphs in favour of writing long bricks of text containing everything from scene-setting to conversations to character’s thoughts and memories. Even though I can see some critics viewing this as a more “literary” stylistic choice, I found it not only hard to read but distracting from the story itself.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is not a bad book. It is simply not a book for me. Having loved her two previous novels, I found it difficult to read such similar thematic material without comparing it to the versions she’s already written that I enjoyed much more.
Yet, I have a feeling that this may ultimately be considered the most “literary” of Rooney’s work so far, and for that reason, it achieving great critical success and winning some fancy awards. Whether readers are able to enjoy the experience of reading it, however, is another matter altogether.
Regardless, whenever a new Rooney is published, you know I’ll be pre-ordering a signed hardcover copy, holding my breath that she’s going to knock it out of the park yet again.