Beautiful World, Where are you? – a book review

Image taken in Dublin, Ireland.
Image retrieved from: Pietro Tebaldi on Unsplash

Beautiful World, Where are you is Sally Rooney’s latest novel, published recently in September 2021. I couldn’t wait to pick up this book after reading her other book – Normal People.

I can say with much confidence that Sally Rooney yet again, did not fail to impress me.

Beautiful World, Where are you? tells a story of 4 main characters: Alice, Eileen, Felix and Simon whom are all facing various struggles life. Compared to Marianne and Connell in Normal People, the characters this time round are in their late twenties/early thirties and come across as more mature.

Alice is a successful novelist who has resided to a small town on the coast of Ireland after experiencing a mental breakdown triggered by her fear of running out of literary content ideas. She met Felix through swiping right on his Tinder profile. After their first date, she extended him an invitation to accompany her to a short Rome trip for her Italian book launch. Meanwhile, Eileen lives and works in Dublin as an assistant editor for a literary magazine, and finds herself falling back in love with her childhood friend Simon. Simon is a devout Catholic, which Eileen finds weird about but is also somewhat amazed by the sincerity of his faith.

Similar to Rooney’s previous work, this story delves into the various complexities of these characters. There are complexities in the relationships between the characters, complexities within these characters and also complexities in the world around them. There are moments in which certain characters must face the realities in the differences in socio-economic status, accept the differences in their beliefs and faith and more-so, acknowledging the general reality and the challenges that life holds for each of them.

When it comes to putting something at the centre of life, God strikes me as a good option – better at least than making up stories about people who don’t exist, or falling in love with people who hate me.

I personally enjoyed this book more than Normal People, although I felt like I could relate better with Marianne and Connell, considering I am roughly their age. But I think I liked this book better partly because there was more substance in what the characters were going through. And because they all had their flaws and different characteristics, they felt really raw and realistic, so I think it didn’t really matter whether I was going through similar things as them or not. I guess also this time we have 4 characters to explore compared to only 2 previously, so that added an extra element of ‘positionally’. I also liked how there was better communication between these characters, and I guess this is why it eventually moulded and evolved into a more ‘secure’ ending, compared to what happened in Normal People.

I know there are mixed feelings about the ending, but I personally felt that it made sense and summed up everything in a more wholesome way, rather than leaving their issues hanging off the hook. While not everything was entirely ‘resolved’ by the end, I that it was a realistic representation of how things are in real life, because sometimes we cannot resolve every problem or matter. As cliché as this sounds – life goes on. We do not need to dwell on our past, we should only look to the future.

remembered suffering never feels as bad as present suffering, even if it was really a lot worse – we can’t remember how much worse it was, because remembering is weaker than experiencing

Out of all the characters, I found Felix to be the most interesting. It’s a bit of a controversial one, as I am aware that some readers absolutely hated this dude. They found him to be a complete waste-man and straight up pointless. Fair enough. But I felt that the craft of this character was really compelling, and I think Rooney really put a lot of thought into portraying him.

As a worker in a warehouse packaging facility, Felix is the most ‘working class’ character among the four. He is also an ‘outsider’ of the 3, as Alice, Eileen and Simon all grew up together and have known each other for many years. But in this story he comes in as more of a ‘de-constructor’, bringing out the unsaid feelings, unsaid thoughts and tensions that have grappled with these characters for many years. His constant questioning and unsettling comments eventually ruptured through the friendship between Alice and Eileen, as they finally poured out the truth and faced their suppressed feelings towards each other. Fortunately, this argument did not end their friendship there.

I think with Felix’s background, socioeconomic status as well as his previous life events, it really shaped his views of the world as well as the person he is. I really liked that he had this straight-forward and direct characteristic which was lacking in most of Rooney’s other characters. Despite not earning much or owning many things, I felt that he was the most simplistic character in the way he approached life. Ironically, Alice, who is the richest out of the four and has everything she needs, seems to be the one who struggles the most with her emotional state.

As someone who claims to be a marxist, I think Sally Rooney tries to find ways to integrate her societal values/beliefs in her writing. In this book, the email letter conversations between Alice and Eileen enabled Rooney to weave in her ideas on politics, climate change, religion, philosophy etc.

I’ve been reading and learning a lot more about capitalism and our economic system lately, and also exploring the perspectives of Marx, Adam Smith and renowned political economists. I think seeing these ideas and concepts integrated into Rooney’s stories was pretty fascinating. I really liked this quote in particular:

“People think that socialism is sustained by force – the forcible expropriation of property – but I wish they would just admit that capitalism is also sustained by exactly the same force in the opposite direction, the forcible protection of existing property arrangements.”

I think it is a fair point that capitalism is a very strong force, and a large determinant of how we go about living in today’s society. It influences what producers produce, how consumers consume and is also the root to many of the global-scale problems we face in today’s society, from extreme poverty to the hot topic of climate change.

If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend grabbing an opportunity to give it a read.

I’ve had an amazing time immersing myself into this beautiful literary novel, and I hope you’ll enjoy it too.