Sally Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, understands the context of its arrival. Her first two novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), won her praise as the “great Millennial novelist” just as often as they became, along with the idea of the Millennial novel, objects of criticism and ridicule. The 2020 Hulu adaptation of Normal People pushed Rooney into pop culture and confirmed her ability to polarize. To some, her fame is a sign of her novels’ “relatability.” For others, it reveals the uncomplex and undemanding nature of her work and the infantilization of literary fiction in general. Rooney has become not just another buzzy young novelist but an index of literary opinions, tastes, and convictions. Your take on Sally Rooney supposedly reveals what you believe about all kinds of things: friendship and intimacy, how art and politics collide, and what novels are supposed to do.
Beautiful World is unlikely to win Rooney many new converts because it doesn’t break new ground; like its predecessors, the novel tracks the romantic and intellectual anxieties of young, bookish white people. Likewise, Rooney’s main thematic concern remains unchanged: the emotional deformities produced by contemporary capitalism. But this latest book does constitute a step forward. Rooney has learned from her first two books; she’s experimenting a little, not to revolutionize the novel form, but to better do the things she’s always done. Beautiful World is just another Sally Rooney novel—but it’s the best example of the genre yet.
The outlines of Beautiful World will be familiar to Rooney fans. There’s an intimate group of clever, politically minded twentysomethings. There’s a trip to Europe. There’s a long series of exasperating misunderstandings caused by everyone’s inability to express their emotions. But Beautiful World is more formally and stylistically ambitious than her previous two novels. In Conversations, a single character, the narrator Frances, holds the first-person narrative reins, offering psychological access but limited outward scope. Normal People emphasizes the effects of entanglement on its two main characters, Connell and Marianne, by sticking to a third-person narrative that bounces between them, trading interiority for perspective. Beautiful World does both. The novel’s four characters arrange themselves in various quadrilaterals: Alice, a lauded young Irish novelist, begins to date Felix, who works in a retail warehouse, just as her best friend Eileen rekindles a long-term flirtation with Simon, a childhood friend and observant Catholic. But it’s Eileen and Alice who provide the novel’s sense of dramatic escalation, as their friendship becomes increasingly strained by Alice’s coolness and Eileen’s ungenerosity toward Alice’s recovery from a mental-health episode that landed her in the hospital. Aside from an occasional set piece—one chapter spans a long Woolfian paragraph and another chapter reworks Joyce’s famous short story “The Dead”—the book alternates between omniscient third-person narration and first-person email exchanges between Eileen and Alice, which provide opportunities for extended reflection not only on the novel’s events but also on politics, aesthetics, and religion. They try to establish what it feels like to live in the unspooling now; their confusion with one another, and with Simon and Felix, mirrors their confusion with the contemporary world. Any “sense of the continuous present is no longer a feature of our lives,” writes Eileen. “And I wonder (you might say irrelevantly) what all this means for culture and the arts,” especially “cultural works set ‘in the present.’” But not even narrative omniscience can overcome confusion and uncertainty; the narrative voice often doubts what it describes, as when we’re told that Felix might have “a grave-looking expression on his face, but maybe he was just frowning under the glare of sunlight.”