You never know what a person might be going through. A famous novelist may be plagued by insecurity. A childhood friend who grew up in a manor house may have epilepsy. Good fortune isn’t always the panacea some would believe.
Sally Rooney (Normal People) knows this well. Her first two novels were laser-sharp investigations into the lives of characters in their 20s and early 30s. She continues this work in her third book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, an ambitious novel that deepens her earlier themes.
As with Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friends, the new book focuses on a quartet of characters. Alice is a novelist with mixed feelings about her early success. She says of her public persona, “I hate her with all my energy,” animosity that leads to a spell in a psychiatric hospital.
After years in New York, she moves to Dublin and meets Felix, who works in a warehouse. She invites him to Rome for an event promoting the Italian translation of her book. Their relationship deepens but not without tension over the imbalances between them.
Meanwhile, Alice’s university friend Eileen has become a low-paid editorial assistant. She has rediscovered feelings for Simon, who grew up in the aforementioned manor house and is deeply religious.
Throughout the book, Alice and Eileen exchange long emails. Interspersed among them are disquisitions on socialism versus capitalism, political conservatism and whether the nature of beauty can survive in a social-media era.
Unlike Rooney’s previous novels, parts of this one feel self-consciously artsy, with a chapter-long backstory and paragraphs that run for many pages. But on the way to its heartfelt destination, this flight is still smooth despite brief, mild turbulence. Rooney writes with uncommon perceptiveness, and her ability to find deeper meaning in small details, such as knowing how a friend takes his coffee, remains unparalleled.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is a brutally honest portrait of flawed characters determined to prove “that the most ordinary thing about human beings is not violence or greed but love and care.”