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Beautiful World, Where Are You (Review)

Beautiful World, Where Are You (Review)

Two weeks ago, I finished Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney. I procrastinated this post for two main reasons; one, I didn’t establish a cohesive opinion on the novel and two, I struggled to identify why I love contemporary fiction. My immediate answer to the latter is usually something along the lines of, “to experience lives that are not mine”. That response isn’t entirely false, but it does vainly resonate a sense of nobility and oversimplification.

Truthfully, I think I love contemporary fiction because it allows me to experience lives that are not mine and confirm my own. Obviously, prose, plot, characters, and other literary elements are essential, but my current poorly tested hypothesis states that these elements should operate to expand or confirm one’s own world. I’ve read a few books like An American Marriage and A Man Called Ove that mostly sharpen my empathy and allow me to glean vicarious experiences of fictional characters, but I’ll admit that most of my contemporary reads trend the other way and mostly validate my personal dilemmas (a few favorites include Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and Everything I Never Told You).

I suppose, a novel should balance world expansion and validation. Too much expansion and the readers are left uninterested and disengaged. But with too much validation, the reader isn’t challenged with novel ideas. Beautiful World, Where Are You balances this by presenting a pair of young women, Alice and Eileen, struggling to navigate love, sex and the world they live all while confronting their dwindling youth. Rooney allows readers to simultaneously experience the development of two modern romances: Eileen’s flirtatious relationship with her childhood crush, Simon, and Alice’s asynchronous partnership with Felix, a warehouse worker. Following the four (possibly, overly) complex characters illuminate world views and personalities shaped by individual struggle, financial stability, and upbringing.

Despite the appearance of a love story, Eileen’s and Alice’s friendship is the focal point of the novel. Their email exchanges provide glimpses into their minds, discussing the fall of modern and ancient civilizations, the loss of beauty and the hypocrisy of contemporary novelists. The email exchanges are occasionally random and rambling, but it’s that incoherence that provides the world validation for me.

Beautiful World, Where Are You may balance world expansion and validation, but that doesn’t excuse it from the character shortcomings. The characters are so multi-dimensional that they’re almost unbearable. Alice is a successful novelist who has the tendency to be cold and self-absorbed and her partner, Felix, is immature and senseless and seemingly exists only to instigate and drive plot. Eileen, on the other hand is dramatic and indecisive, which pairs curiously with Simon, a hollow conformist.

I scratched my head when Alice confesses her love for Felix with little reciprocation and I rolled my eyes when Eileen storms out of a party and snaps at Simon in the street. After reading, I realized that I never fell in love with the characters and can recall moments when I disliked them immensely. Regardless, I’m drawn to our shared concerns and how they confirm my world.

Beautiful World, Where Are You addresses purpose and belonging, a concern shared amongst myself and many others reconciling with the passage of time. In an email to Eileen, Alice describes re-reading her published book saying, “Was I really like that once? A person capable of dropping down into the most fleeting of impressions, and dilating them somehow, dwelling inside them, and finding riches and beauty there?”. Alice may be callous, but I can’t help but reflect upon myself in the same way. I often read back on my past journal entries and share her same sensation. A dissonance between the alleged fervor of the past that now possess little weight in the present.

While Alice confronts her identity and purpose, Eileen dubiously searches for internal happiness. Eileen writes to Alice, “What if I’m the one who can’t let myself be happy? Because I’m scared, or I prefer to wallow in self-pity, or I don’t believe I deserve good things, or some other reason?” In moments of crisis, are we not Eileen, struggling to discern self-blame and self-victimization?

By far, my favorite part of the novel was the pairs’ assessment of contemporary novelists and life. Rooney, through Alice’s writing makes the argument that “the problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth”. The novel attempts to be self-aware by admitting that contemporary novels pack the truth of the world “tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text”, leaving readers to care solely for the relationship of characters only once after forgetting everything else that is important. In perfect meta fashion, Rooney writes about suppressing global suffering despite doing exactly so. But that’s not a shot at Rooney because it this awareness that further validates my world.

Despite unbearable characters, I enjoyed the novel for confronting the hypocrisy of contemporary life. Alice and Eileen’s email exchanges are not unlike grandiose conversations I’ve had with friends. We debate about inequality and global suffering protected within our bourgeois bubbles hiding the truth that we’re mostly concerned about love and purpose. As much as I can dislike the cacophonous quartet for their actions, in the end they consistently performed in synchrony to my own life, not just confirming it but exposing it.

To Alice, “great novels engage [her] sympathies and make [her] desire things”. Although the novel is merely good and not great, I stand by my hypothesis for what I love about contemporary fiction. Through flawed characters, Rooney expands readers worlds by delivering messy and honest experiences of romantic and platonic relationships. And she does so while illuminating the hypocrisy and struggles of contemporary life that we all know. I’ll rephrase Alice and say that compelling novels engage my sympathies and make me desire and question things. I give Beautiful World, Where Are You 3.7 stars out of 5 stars.

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