Sally Rooney’s hotly awaited third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, covers themes of friendship, honesty and love. The novel follows Alice, a successful novelist, and her best friend Eileen, who works at a literary magazine in Dublin. They met while studying English Literature at university and are now navigating complex romantic relationships.
Here, Aileen and Victoria, themselves both English Literature students at the University of Manchester, chat about the novel.
These questions invite you to have your own conversations about Beautiful World, Where Are You.
How would you classify the novel, if you think it needs classifying?
A: While Beautiful World, Where Are You could fit into a whole range of genres, I don’t think that there’s one categorisation that would be fully accurate. I imagine it will be regularly marketed as romance, but I don’t see the novel as a romance. For me, the most important relationship is the friendship between Eileen and Alice.
V: I think that the only way the novel could be classified is simply as contemporary literature, in that it is a work which is deeply concerned with the state of our current historical moment and the plights of the people living within it.
So do you think it could be called a novel about love?
V: It’s a novel which is self-conscious about its own status as a novel about love… Alice and Eileen ponder whether there can be any value in books about romance in the face of impending apocalypse, or whether in fact it is one of the only things worth writing about. I think it’s a novel about love being humanity’s redemption in a society where everything else is unforgivingly commodified.
A: The novel also offers moments of varying definitions of love, such as when Felix cuts his hand. He realises he cares about Alice, as it is her that his thoughts turn to.
The novel could be described as plotless, would you agree with that?
V: I wouldn’t agree with that necessarily. The story feels strongly rooted in following the lives of the characters, so it never feels directionless. The action in the novel in that this action is found in interactions between the characters, making the novel personal and character-driven but not strictly plotless, as Rooney charts a clear trajectory in all four characters’ lives.
A: I completely agree with Victoria – while overall the pace of the novel is slow, there are still key turning points that move the plot forward.
And what about the sex?
V: As always with Rooney, the sex is part of her preoccupation with the mundane and the real. Audre Lorde wrote about the diametrical difference between the erotic and the pornographic, in that the erotic is emotionally charged whilst the pornographic is sensation without feeling. Sex in Beautiful World, Where Are You always falls into the former, simultaneously reflecting and constructing the connection between the novel’s characters.
A: Again I would agree, although the characters do tend to have full blown conversations during sex, which strikes me as slightly unrealisitc at times! However, it is pretty characteristic of Rooney’s protagonists to analyse sex whilst having it.
What did you think of the writing style?
A: I enjoyed the intensely detailed, detached sentences describing the actions of the characters, especially when those actions were juxtaposed against one another, such as when Felix is working at a warehouse while Alice is writing at home. I think this also revealed similar banalities about Eileen’s job as an editor to Felix’s in a warehouse, which centralised questions about the value of labour and the purpose of work that run throughout the novel.
V: I agree; the level of detail, especially in trivialities which could be seen as too banal to be worth mentioning by other writers, brings Rooney’s characters to life in a way which seems so unique to her work.
Did you like the email portions of the novel?
A: I loved reading the emails, which have a reason to be overly crafted and witty and stylish, in a way that the characters’ conversation cannot quite be. It’s interesting to consider why Alice and Eileen only seem to communicate via email, despite regularly using social media platforms to interact with other people. The emails show how little they see each other (only meeting once at the end of the novel) and perhaps reflect anxieties within the friendship that aren’t immediately apparent.
V: The emails were enjoyable and thought-provoking, although I couldn’t shake the sense that they were functioning simply as a mouthpiece for Rooney’s own beliefs, like it was Rooney in dialogue with Rooney in the ‘conversations’ between Alice and Eileen.
To what extent is the novel about the status of the author and their relationship with fame?
V: For me the novel read overwhelmingly as Rooney’s response to her own sudden fame. Alice felt like a very transparent stand-in for Rooney herself, faced with extreme literary success which causes her to question the integrity of her own work. As Rooney is a self-professed Marxist, I believe that Beautiful World, Where Are You was very much her rebelling against this success by explicitly reinstating her own views as the characters mourn the death of the contemporary novel, beauty and art in the face of capitalism’s commodification of these things.
A: While I agree to some extent, it’s dangerous to view the novel as too autobiographical. It is a work of fiction, and Alice is a created character that cannot be seen as merely a mouthpiece for the author. That’s not to say I don’t think Rooney would agree with a lot Alice had to say in the novel…
What about the title?
A: The lack of a question mark in the title is thought provoking. I think it seems to invite continued conversation, as it requires finishing – Beautiful World, Where Are You [going?], Beautiful World, Where Are You [now?]. Or perhaps, looking at the title more bleakly, it cannot be framed as a question because a beautiful world doesn’t exist and cannot be found.
V: The title reveals the book’s theme of trying to find beauty in the modern Western world due to the disaster of capitalism which places profit above people… I think Rooney finds this beautiful world in the end, and finds it in the love between the characters.
And without any spoilers, what about the ending?
A: I was disappointed with the final two chapters, both emails, which struck me as more cliche than I was expecting from the novel. There was an abrupt change in tone, alongside a change in time and circumstance, and I felt it was disjointed from the rest of the novel.
V: I think that although the sentimentality of the ending may be construed as cliche if written by any other writer, by leaning into this Rooney is escaping her own cliche of pessimistic, bittersweet endings. These final chapters that would normally seem cliche end up feeling poignant when found in Rooney’s work, which is so often bleak. It seemed like a fitting end for Rooney’s search for a beautiful world.
How do you think this novel compares to her previous work?
A: Beautiful World, Where Are You won’t have the same mass appeal as Normal People – characters in this novel, as in Conversations With Friends, are more immoral and at times less likable than Connell and Marianne. The romances are also less compelling. Personally though, I enjoyed it more than her previous work.
V: This book felt more intellectually driven that Ronney’s previous novels, with the emails particularly operating as long pieces of theoretical writing about society and its politics. Although this was extremely interesting, and Rooney certainly has many perceptive and sharp points to make, sometimes the novel’s intellectualism felt at the expense of time to develop the characters and their relationships.
Any final thoughts?
A: I was already inclined to like it, as an English Literature student. And I did like it. At times it felt like it was written about me or people I know, as though Rooney had successfully voiced my own thoughts better than I am capable of doing, and I devoured the book within two days. It is therefore hard to judge how much of this enjoyment was self indulgent!
V: I agree in already feeling inclined to like it, as I was a big fan of Rooney’s other work and style. I loved the book, though, and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a thoughtful, accomplished contemporary novel.