Sally Rooney’s work is incredibly smart: her writing — despite its lack of quotation marks — possesses a clarity too frequently lacking in contemporary literature. She often follows Irish millennials, their fraught relationships, cerebral musings about art and politics and struggles to forge authenticity in a world where it has become increasingly arduous to do so. Her newest novel “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is not necessarily a departure from this formula, but rather a maturation of it: It’s Rooney at her sharpest, sexiest and most introspective.
The narrative is constructed around the lives of four adrift Irish people approaching 30, and their entangled platonic and sexual relationships. The novel oscillates between a traditional narrative and an epistolary format structured by email exchanges between Alice and Eileen, the two female protagonists. Alice, a successful novelist recovering from a mental breakdown, seems to bear similarities to Rooney.
In an email to Eileen, Alice expresses her fear that her writing is politically useless, stating “I find my own work to be morally and politically worthless, and yet it’s what I want to do with my life, the only thing I want to do.” This perspective is not a foreign one to many people who create and consume art, and it gets at the common underlying fear that often goes unacknowledged. How can we reconcile the need to participate in an attention economy that feels growingly frivolous amid the barrage of material strife present in modern society? Rooney doesn’t seek to answer this question, but rather uses it as the prism through which her characters view the world.
Rooney’s fiction is almost always typified as millennial — a classification that, while accurate, occasionally belies its literary merit. Rooney’s narratives often center disillusioned, slightly selfish young women, and the “millennial fiction” label makes her writing especially prone to harsh criticism. Yet, as shown in “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” not all of this criticism is unfounded. With terms such as “girlboss” entering the lexicon of the broader public in recent years, Rooney’s characters — whose socialist politics seem purely optical — feel shallow.
With this sense of pretentiousness, the characters’ dialogues have a tendency to feel contrived and occasionally corny. There is, of course, something uniquely absurd about exchanging lengthy correspondences about communism every time you have sex with someone, which Alice and Eileen partake in quite frequently. But not every aspect of Eileen and Alice’s relationship inspires an eye roll — there are moments of incredible tenderness etched in between.
“Beautiful World, Where Are You” excels in the way it shifts focus from the individual and onto the relationship. This widened scope allows for a sharp emphasis on Eileen and Alice’s friendship, which binds the narrative together. Their emails to each other share a malaise and existentialism that feels true to the millennial experience, especially with the mounting threats of climate change and economic inequality. Despite the occasionally infuriating nature of their pedantic exchanges, there is something endearing about the way they both consistently draft these emails with an incredible amount of precision, care and candor.
Alice and Eileen’s relationship is a constant amidst the turmoil of their turbulent romantic trysts. Over the novel’s 350-page length, characters stumble through awkward Tinder dates, fail to communicate and fall in and out of love. Communication between the central couples — Eileen and Simon, Alice and Felix — is mired by an array of unsent texts, bristly misinterpretations and general failure to follow through. These obstacles can make for a frustrating read, but one that nevertheless mirrors real life. “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” despite its convoluted politics, is a comforting and witty portrayal of the messy relationship dynamics so many young people are all too familiar with.