Author of bestselling works Normal People and Conversations with Friends and now Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney sits at the forefront of impactful and effective writing. Rooney, just 30 years old, graduated from Trinity College, Dublin and published her first books in 2017 and 2018. Both Normal People and Conversations with Friends demonstrated the simple, almost efficient, tone of Rooney’s writing; in a remarkable fashion, she manages a great deal of depth with only a few words at a time. Conversations with Friends follows four characters, Franny, Bobbi, Nick, and Melissa, and their sometimes controversially inter-connected dynamics, political discussions, and romantic relationships. Rooney’s most successful book, Normal People, later adapted into BBC and Hulu show starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, features Connell and Marianne, and first follows their relationship in secondary school in Sligo, Ireland. The plot continues to follow the pair’s seemingly magnetic pull and explores their experiences at Trinity College. The nuances and complexities of Connell and Marianne’s relationship open thematic discussions on struggles with mental health, sexuality, friend- ship, and trauma. Rooney writes a fast-paced but hard-hitting novel. She leaves readers feeling reflective.
When I first hopped on the Sally Rooney train and finished Normal People, I understood the trend the author had inspired. Not only is her writing entertaining, but it too felt easy-to-read and complex enough to trigger thought. She manages a wonderfully straightforward, although not juvenile, description of human interaction. At the beginning of the novel, Connell treats Marianne poorly, ignoring and hiding their relationship while at school for the sake of his reputation. Rooney artfully reveals Connell’s reasoning: “For a moment it seems possible to keep both worlds, both versions of his life, and to move in between just like moving through a door.” Rooney explores this all-too-relatable question of control and anxiety. She later writes the novel’s most famous lines, when Marianne describes how much Connell’s relationship has benefited her mental health and sense of self-worth over the years: “He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her.” In just one sentence, Rooney intensely describes the evolution of this pair’s relationship, and how its transcendence has internally changed Marianne for the better. These sorts of simple lines define Rooney’s style and this book: direct, simple, powerful. They too fueled readers’ excitement for Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You.
Published in early September, this 337-page novel follows the story of Dublin-based characters, Eileen, Simon, Alice, and Felix. Friends for more than ten years, Eileen and Simon have been inconsistently romantically involved, and Alice and Felix met via a dating app after successful novelist Alice returned from mental health treatment. Alice and Eileen became close friends at Trinity College and later roommates. After Eileen started a long-term relationship with Aidan, she and Alice stopped being roommates and their lives diverged a bit more as Alice’s writing career took off. Rooney communicates the plot through a series of short chapters, with glimpses into interactions be- tween each of the romantic pairs, and weaves in and out of email exchanges between Alice and Eileen. Rooney looks to isolated, detailed physical descriptions to curate her characters. Especially in the emails between the two close friends, the text offers more philosophical conversations, as Eileen and Alice speak at length on religion and faith, sexuality, romantic relationships, etc. I found that the sheer quantity of these wordier, more philosophical monologues made the important discussions themselves lose some of their value. They were placed intermittently throughout the book and tackled the heavier thoughts almost too abruptly. Compared to when I read Conversations with Friends and Normal People, in which the broader struggles connect- ing these characters remained consistent and clear throughout the text, I became a bit lost and felt more distant from the characters. The writing felt busier, and yet simultaneously not as full as Rooney’s first two novels.
The book, however, is a page-turner. Readers meet the characters in refreshingly different settings, accompanied with powerful lines like those in Rooney’s prior novels; she writes of an interaction between Eileen and Simon, similar to Marianne’s famous last lines of Normal People, “Reaching to touch Simon’s hand, Eileen said: I’ll be back. He nodded, he was smiling at her. Don’t worry he said. I’ll be here.” It was in part due to these sorts of simple and heartwarming interactions, hinting at Rooney’s overall style but also at these familiar cross-novel tendencies, that I found myself invested in the book. Although I was more intrigued by the plots of Conversations with Friends and Normal People, this new Rooney novel proves similarly powerful and entertaining.