Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney

The last of the Sally Rooney trilogy (I like to think Rooney’s books are a trilogy), yes, this novel is about the world we live in. I think everyone today (in these past two years) can say that at certain points, we all questioned the world we live in. It’s so hard to see beauty in the midst of so much negative.

This much-awaited novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You? was just as exhilarating as her previous two.

Alright, let’s dive deep and convince you to read Rooney’s novels (if you haven’t already).


Alice & Felix

Alice is a famous author and lives on the coast in Ireland away from the city and celebrity status. She meets Felix on Tinder and although their first date didn’t go well, Alice invites him on a paid trip to Rome with her as she does interviews and book signings.

(Sidenote: I loved how social media is displayed in the novel. We get glimpses at texting and how the characters react as well as respond to texts. Have you ever thought about how you text?)

Alice has a troubled past (which we don’t get enough insight on) yet the recurring state of her mental health shapes how she deals with her estranged relationship with Felix.

Felix, on the other hand, seemed like a disinterested and cocky guy who has a basic life, yet as the novel progresses, the reader comes to realize that he’s a regular guy who isn’t “showy”. We also get hints that he too is mentally troubled but we don’t see enough of his past life.

Instead, he’s honest with Alice – he finds her intimidating and he doesn’t like how she tries to belittle him when he knows she doesn’t mean to be mean. He has also noted that she is sardonic – which is true. Alice is awkwardly witty which could be perceived by others as if she thought too highly of herself.

Felix just treats her like a normal human being and doesn’t care that she’s a millionaire celebrity author.

Yet Alice hints at past relationships that hurt her and instead of bracing for the expectation of hurt and rejection, she’d rather accept the hurt before it even happens and still have her dignity.

What makes their relationship complex is that they’re drawn to each other but it isn’t clear why. It’s their openness that makes the relationship feel like there’s something off – but sometimes we meet people that we’re drawn to even though we don’t know why.

Eileen & Simon

Their relationship is the basic boy-next-door cliche. Boy and girl grew up together, loved each other all their life, but too scared to do anything about it. It’s hard to break away from a long friendship and turn it into something more.

I found Eileen sometimes annoying. She’s in her late 20’s and still figuring things out. Reason why was because she was in a long-term relationship that shouldn’t have been long-term. She was settling for her ex, Aidan.

I say this often in life, comfort is dangerous.

If you are not growing in your current relationship, clearly it’s not working for you.

Throughout the novel, Eileen was indecisive which made her come off as overly dramatic. Eileen is definitely a sensitive person (nothing wrong about that) yet she never allowed herself to be real with herself about her true emotions.

The problem with Eileen is that she looks up to Simon so much, creating a god-like complex, that she’s so scared of loosing him if a relationship didn’t work out. However, all of Eileen’s issues stem from her own anxieties over Simon even though proved to her over and over that he loves her which makes him too good for her.

At one point, Simon tells Eileen: “the problem is that you seem to be drawn to people who aren’t very good at giving you those responses.” (something that most of us can relate to)

Because Simon is a detached person. Not because he doesn’t have feelings but because he’s been misunderstood by everyone around him his entire life – which only means he’s really lonely and he’s used to that.

And that’s why Simon has nothing to live for – he’s done nothing with his life. He has expressed in the novel that he’s not depressed because he’s accepted that this is what his life has led to. There were cliche moments in which Simon told Eileen that “all he wants in life is to be with her” which made me cringe – but hey, life can be cliche at times right?

Sometimes the characters seemed inconstant around each other which can be confusing – but that’s exactly how human beings are like.

Narrative Structure

Beautiful World, Where Are You? sometimes felt like it was two novels working in one. We’ve got two main characters, Alice and Eileen, who are best friends but live far away. The novel alternates between Alice’s perspective to an email by Eileen, then to Eileen’s perspective, with a follow-up email by Alice; and so on.

This old school method of ’emails’ was not one I expected from Rooney (since I personally hate the cliche of it) but it worked for this novel. The emails gave space for both characters to ramble, think, and express their views of the world. Both Alice and Eileen are two intelligent women that’s for sure.

Rooney also never uses quotation marks for dialogue and some might find that odd or annoying to manage to read, yet, why she doesn’t make use of them is actually a simple notion: we don’t naturally speak in quotation marks which is why Rooney probably thinks we don’t need them in texts.

Where’s The Beautiful World?

The narration switches to third person on page 250. This is where the novel becomes one.

Both Alice and Eileen finally meet at a train station and it’s like time stops in the novel.

The best friends embrace and although such an act would seem mundane to the eye, Rooney conveys the beauty of the image in our minds with her writing.

The backdrop of the scene is “a dirty discarded plastic bottle scuttled along the platform under a breath of wind” while “a mechanized billboard on the station wall rotated from an advertisement for hair products to an advertisement for car insurance“.

The hints Rooney places are actually digs at the current environmental crisis and our commercialized world (topics both Alice and Eileen discuss in their emails).

At the end of the passage, Rooney shocks her readers: “as life in its ordinariness and even ugly vulgarity imposed itself everywhere around them? or were they in this moment unaware, or something more than unaware – were they somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper, something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, of a beautiful world?

This is the climax of the novel. The reader has reached an epiphany.

As we are picturing this image in our minds, we are seeing the beautiful world.

Both Alice and Eileen in their emails agree that beauty – real beauty – is a feeling felt in the simplest acts of randomness.

Sometimes, don’t you feel that when you look at someone or something, and you really look at it for a second, you feel it’s beauty? Doesn’t matter what it looks lie, but the appreciation of that person or thing is what makes it beautiful. Because beauty it isn’t something you can see – it’s a feeling.

Current Global Issues

Apart from discussing, what is beauty?, Alice and Eileen’s emails talk about a lot of things that are on our minds. From the environment, to religion, and writing, their emails are a direct show of their thought processes. The issues they discuss (quite profoundly) are ones we are dealing with (or maybe need to deal with better).

They both agree that we live in a selfish world – each one of us does not directly contribute to saving the environment but instead ensure we have successful careers, good education, and do things that make us happy. All of these actions only matter to us and give nothing back to the world.

Their discussion made me relate very much to the movie Don’t Look Up. We’d rather look away and forget that there’s a big big problem out there and instead leave it up to our (failure) governments to solve it.

The world is commercial. We cannot deny that. Was it always like this? Or did the Industrial Revolution really screw up the world?

Rooney takes this a bit further. As a writer with much-acclaimed fame, she’s expressed how ugly the publishing world is since it is still a money-making business.

Alice was Rooney’s means to understand better how it feels to be an author that everyone knows and judges and associates feelings to. But no one really knows Rooney. Just because we read her novels doesn’t mean that Rooney is our best friend (this goes into Roland Barthes’ theory of death of the author).

In interviews, Rooney gave the impression that while she was writing Beautiful World, Where Are You?, she was facing a mid-life writing crisis; she started to question what is the novel? and how was she naturally writing them? (I feel this is one of the many current debates in contemporary literature right now)

Whereas Normal People was Rooney’s staple rise-to-fame novel, it seemed like Rooney was now figuring herself out as a big-time author with Beautiful World, Where Are You?.

What’s for sure is that Sally Rooney is the great literary writer of the 21st century, topping anyone who’s written in this age – simply because she’s writing about people.

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