The Reading List: Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney, 2021

Cover of Beautiful World, Where Are You, with title and author in a bold, rounded black font, along with the text 'Author of Normal People'.
Image credit: Goodreads

Novel keeps the worst of her previous work and loses the best

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a The Reading List entry. For one reason another, my reading goals largely took a back seat in 2021, and I didn’t get through half as many as I was planning to. I’ve posted a round-up of what I did manage to complete, and I may go back and write some fuller reviews, but for now I’m starting afresh and diving into what I’ve been reading so far in 2022. First things first, Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (and yes, it does slightly bother me that there’s no question mark). This is actually the second Rooney to feature on The Reading List: I also reviewed Normal People back in 2020.

I generally haven’t placed much weight on the critical reception of Rooney’s works. Some critics seem to have a bit of a vendetta against her, seemingly in some cases simply because she is a young, successful woman. Her latest novel has not had the overwhelmingly positive response of Normal People, nor the encouraging welcome of Conversations with Friends, but I largely dismissed this. Unfortunately, having now gathered my own thoughts, I find myself largely agreeing with the less positive critics. Rooney’s latest work seems to take the at times unlikeable characters of her previous works and strip them of almost any and all redeeming qualities that might make them enjoyable to read about, replacing carefully observed human stories with deeply unreadable pseudo-intellectual passages which render the book a slog to read.

I try to resist biographical readings of works of fiction, particularly those by women, which are often automatically mapped onto the lives of their authors in a way those of men are not. But Rooney has made it almost impossible not to see herself in the character of Alice particularly, whose experiences at least superficially align so perfectly with Rooney’s own. Through Alice she seems to be struggling with herself, her own voice breaking through into that of her character. She seems to feel deeply uncomfortable about the reception her works have received, both in terms of their success, and their potential lack of real ‘value’.

I can’t help but feel most of Sally Rooney’s characters could be played by Dakota Johnson (if she could pull off the accent). All her characters are thin, white and beautiful – even if they think otherwise. Likewise they constantly complain of loneliness, of being unlikable, of people hating them, whilst simultaneously spending most of the novel popping between house parties, dinner parties and pub meet-ups. Part of modern life is coming to terms with social isolation, and the feeling of being alone in a crowd, but Rooney doesn’t seem to want to commit to having genuinely isolated characters. Nor does she seem to want to commit to writing characters who are actually varied from societal beauty standards in any way. It’s as if she doesn’t trust us to empathise with or forgive them if they’re not all stunners. They’re awkward in their beauty, for sure, but only in the way the subject of a teen song might be. She and we know she’s beautiful really.

I don’t want to let this dominate my thoughts on Rooney’s writing too much, but for me it does add to the sense, particularly in Beautiful World, Where are you, that what we get from Rooney is a mixture of AU fan fiction and undergraduate blog post. No one is more concerned than Rooney with justifying the existence, the importance, of the modern novel, and while she goes some way to exploring this, she seems to give up once she’s decided that it is inherently human to care about each other’s sex lives. She seems to settle on it being totally legitimate for her to earn huge amounts of money writing about self-absorbed, incredibly good looking people having sex and hurting each other’s feelings. Because what else is there to life?

The tedious email chapters feel like a response to critic’s assertions, and perhaps Rooney’s own doubts, that she and her works are nothing special, as she desperately attempts to let us all know how much she knows. While I can see why she might want to include these musings, I must confess that I came to dread them (I say came to, but I disliked them from the start). They feel all too familiar to me as someone who went to a ‘good’ university, surrounded by people even more desperate than Rooney to prove how many books they have read and how clever they are.

Having said this, there are some passages which equal the nearly poetic best of her previous works, which you appreciate all the more for their rarity. The line ‘They looked at one another for a long moment without moving, without speaking, and in the soil of that look many years were buried’ particularly struck me.

Rooney attempts to use this book and her thinly veiled double Alice to understand her role as a contemporary author who’s new found fame and the financial benefits that come with it undermine her left-wing principles. Unfortunately she fails to present a truly satisfying justification, and falls into the self-pity so common in her characters. Between this and her preoccupation with an apparent fear of being ‘cancelled’, this book is perhaps the one Rooney needed to write, but not one we need to read. 

This is certainly one of the most scathing Reading List entries so far, but I just can’t hide the fact that I didn’t warm to this novel. It got better towards the end, when we get an all too brief reprieve from the e-mails, but overall I found it by far the least satisfying of her novels, and it is not one I will be returning to. What did you think of it? Have I been far too harsh? Have I totally missed the point? It’s safe to say this novel didn’t do what I needed it to, but perhaps you had a different experience. I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections, so please do share in the comments below. Thanks very much for reading mine!

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