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  • Ninay Desai

Beautiful World, Where are you by Sally Rooney

Beautiful World, where are you is not a book for everyone. If you’re the kind of person who likes fast-paced, plot-driven stories, then this is not your kind of novel. Which is not to say that there is no action whatsoever. It’s just that many of what would count as major events take place either before the novel opens or somewhere off the page, and are referred to as having happened in the final chapter which serves as an epilogue. With Beautiful World, where are you Sally Rooney sets out to write a story about friendship and love in the midst of economic disparity and a kind of existential dread.

The thread of existential dread or more precisely, a questioning of the true place of an individual with all the cares that occupy our minds in contrast to the larger context of recorded history, our species and the planet is fitting given that Beautiful World, where are you was published in September 2021, after the world had been through multiple lockdowns.

A platter of cheesy garlic bread on a table with a mosaic tabletop. Beside the platter lies a copy of Sally Rooney's novel Beautiful World, Where are you and a cafe frappe. Photo by Ninay Desai.

This is Rooney’s third novel, following Conversations with Friends and Normal People. I have read neither but I do know that focussing on her protagonists’ coming of age and their relationships is a feature of her novels. And in that sense, Beautiful World, where are you is similar. It is about two best friends (who met in college), Alice and Eileen who are nearing 30. Alice is a successful and much-feted author who moves to an oceanside town in Ireland after a stint in New York where she suffered a mental breakdown. Eileen, on the other hand, works as an assistant editor at a literary magazine in Dublin, making very little money.

The main mode of communication between Alice and Eileen is email, in which they discuss their romantic lives and weightier matters such as the collapse of civilization, the end of beauty, commodification of art, the conspicuous consumption of the privileged few built on the backs of the disadvantaged multitude and the strangeness of fame. Dare I say that if it wasn’t for these pithier bits and Rooney’s experiments with narrative style, Beautiful World, where are you could easily be classified as contemporary romance or contemporary women’s fiction instead of literary fiction? Though I must add that I liked Rooney’s style given as it is sparse yet beautiful in how it delves into relationships without devolving into sappiness, with sentences like,

“They looked at one another for a long moment without moving, without speaking, and in the soil of that look many years were buried.”

Beautiful World, where are you made me question the difference between characters who are aware of and concerned about the world and its socio-economic and political history and those who use it to sound intelligent and well-intentioned. The difference, in my opinion, lies in action. Or more precisely, the choices they make. Else, it comes across as pretentious navel-gazing with citations!

The two lead characters of Beautiful World, where are you talk a good game but we don’t see that much in terms of walking the talk. At least in the case of Alice, one makes the supposition that her novels are about characters dealing with these issues and her politics and socio-economic views make their way into her work. Not so with Eileen. Her actions are restricted to reading about ancient civilizations and The Brothers Karamazov and whining to her friends about their lack of care for her.

The other two major characters in the novel are Felix and Simon. Felix is a guy Alice meets on a dating app who has a blue-collar job at a warehouse and a shiftiness that is tough to pinpoint. But Alice persists in her relationship with him even though as readers, we have no idea why. Perhaps, it is supposed to be short-hand to establish how egalitarian Alice is despite her financial success and how untouched by intellectual snobbery. This from a character who claims to have created a “a gulf of sophistication” between her estranged family and herself.

For his part, Felix is uncomfortable with the power and intimidation Alice wields as a consequence of her success and financial freedom, till, suddenly, he isn’t. Felix is the most underwritten character of the lot.

Simon is the other love interest. He works as a political assistant to a Left-leaning politician. He is also the most religious character in Beautiful World, where are you which is viewed as odd behaviour by the other characters. Given that Sally Rooney is Irish and bases her novels in Ireland, I presume this is a nod to the sharply declining number of people who identify as Catholic in a country which for centuries has been recognised as fervently Catholic. In the last census taken in 2022, the percentage of Irish residents who described themselves as Catholics fell to 69% from 84% (the numbers are even more stark in cities like Dublin) in 2011. But, I digress.

Simon Costigan is, we are told repeatedly by every major character, very good-looking and never short of the attention of women. Yet he remains devoted to Eileen who is said to have great potential even though we never see any evidence of the same. She is also a character almost entirely lacking in agency. The little smidgens of agency that she displays are only to reject the good things that happen to her, in order to test the depth of interest of the other party. This cloying neediness gets quite trying after a point. Eileen is that person who waits fervently for other people to cajole her to do things she wants to do and sulks in a corner when they fail to coddle her enough. And yet, we are told that Eileen is worthy of great things. Told but never shown.

Even when we are allowed a momentary flashback into Simon’s memory of his relationship with Eileen, whom he has known and adored since they were children, we are none the wiser as to why he loves her so much. I wonder if this makes Simon fall into the category of male characters referred to, on social media, as “men written by women”? His emotional issues are referred to but never explored. We are presented only the symptoms which dovetail neatly into what the female character, Eileen requires for her happy ending.

In terms of style and format, Beautiful World, where are you is partly an epistolary novel where Alice and Eileen send each other lengthy emails. Written in first person, these emails give the reader a peep into Alice’s and Eileen’s beliefs, psyches and emotional worlds. In a sharp contrast to the intimacy of these parts of the novel, there are chapters written in a distant third-person. A perspective so distant that you may feel like the narrator’s level of knowledge about the characters is the same as you, the reader. It reminded me of times when I have sat in a café and watched the people seated at the table next to mine. Sample this.

“On the platform of a train station, late morning, early June: two women embracing after a separation of several months. Behind them, a tall fair-haired man alighting from the train carrying two suitcases. The two women unspeaking, their eyes closed tight, their arms wrapped around one another, for a second, two seconds, three.”

The two women mentioned in the excerpt are the protagonists and the fair-haired man is Simon but the third-person narrator gives us no hint of their inner emotions or thoughts. Rooney carries this off with a great deal of skill though I’m not sure what it establishes for the story itself apart from the author’s skill.

To me personally, the bits that sparkled were where the characters speak of relatable things in ways that are poetic, emotional and sadly beautiful like,

“We are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness.”

That’s the stuff that conjures up a concrete image, stirs up unnamed emotions and points to an idea too ephemeral to be cloistered into words.

The theme of friendship and how it changes yet remains the same as our lives change is a major theme in Beautiful World, where are you. It makes you go down paths wondering if one’s friends view us as we were when they first met us and whether one of friendship's virtues is to see potential in our friends that others miss. Beautiful World, where are you also explores the juxtaposition of the personal versus the universal (as in matters that are considered of greater importance such civilization, art or economic models). Is one more important than the other?

The weakest link of Beautiful World, where are you is the ending. It feels like Rooney wants to wrap it up in a pretty little bow without showing us the character growth that would be required to arrive at such a point. As a result, the ending feels forced and frankly, trite.

Before I wrap up, let me make the case for the inclusion of quotation marks. Can we please have them back? Life is confusing enough, what with civilization collapsing around our ears (if you believe the novel’s protagonists)! Characters speaking without quotation marks to signify direct speech just makes the world even more confusing. With due apologies to Friedrich Schiller (whose poem The Gods of Greece is the inspiration for this novel's title), this is my note to the author, editor and publishers of this novel: “Beautiful World, where are the quotation marks?”

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Raminder Singh Guraya
Raminder Singh Guraya
Mar 30

I have started liking your blog🤗 wonderful

Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
Mar 30
Replying to

I'm glad you like it. Thank you for subscribing. :-) Welcome to Tamed by the Fox.

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