Romanticised, Pretentious and Yet, Still a Compelling Read…

I’ll be honest, there’s something about Sally Rooney’s writing that draws me to her books. Despite the overly pretentious characters and a general lack of a substantial plotline, Rooney does a fantastic job at portraying the side of Dublin most students are familiar with. Her latest book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, is detached from her typical Trinity student navigating their early twenties and poor communication skills. Beautiful World, Where Are You instead explores the lives of two characters in their late twenties to early thirties. 

A book illustrating the lives of young Irish people post-graduation is something the literary world had been lacking in. We often read books and watch films about characters coming-of-age or exploring their early twenties. The book provides a fresh perspective on what life is like post-graduation for young people in Ireland. The book is set in Dublin and the West of Ireland and follows two best friends Alice and Eileen, who communicate via email (through which the reader is given insights into the lives of the two characters and also the plotline). 

Like much of Rooney’s writings, the plot does not follow a traditional build-up to a point of climax in the book. Instead, it follows a steady pace of the two characters discovering what being alive means to them. This certainly is a personal interpretation of what the book aimed to do. I know many people would think that the plot itself follows the reconciliation of two best friends learning to keep their friendship alive in their late twenties with the pressures of being functional adults. Although that is how I interpret a part of the book, I think the overall aim seems to be adults discovering what it means to be alive. It’s something that I, as somebody in my early twenties, can already see looming in the future. 

Sally Rooney in Merrion Square in Dublin on July 24, 2021. Rooney’s first two books, “Conversations With Friends” and “Normal People,” made her more famous than she liked but for her latest, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” she asked herself what a novel is and why she’s taking on another one. (Ellius Grace/The New York Times)

We are so used to having our lives structured around and defined by our academic deadlines and college timetables, that when you take that away, it is difficult to know what it truly means to be alive. Rooney says at one point in the book: 

“Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing.”

Which although sounds like a romanticised idea of what it means to be alive but when it is presented in front of the backdrop where so much of which is outside our control such as “reorganising the redistribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model”, it seems like the most human thing we could do. 

This is something I can appreciate about the book, despite everything that our generation is currently worried about (climate anxiety and an increasingly capitalist society), one thing we can do is just simply exist and be human and to worry about “sex and friendship” and “be stupid about each other”. I like how the book puts relationships and friendships at the centre of the human experience and not the economic and capital value we tend to measure our experience of life through. 

However, one of the major criticisms I would have about the book is the characters. They are incredibly unlikeable from their initial introduction to the book. As with most of Rooney’s characters, the characters in this book are also highly intellectual beings with complex shortcomings in their personality. You could argue that it is a deliberate decision to make the characters so unlikeable in order to show that the human experience is indeed universal and does not skip over people with seriously stunted communication skills and deep-rooted insecurities. 

Another criticism I would have is that the emails can be unnecessarily pretentious to the point that one cannot actually gauge how close the two characters (Alice and Eileen) are supposed to be. The emails don’t always serve to progress the plotline either, instead, they seem to become big chunks of paragraphs that Rooney uses to provide her social commentary. Some of this social commentary is admittedly quite compelling and enjoyable to read, especially her thoughts on climate change and the future of our planet. This is simply because it’s relevant to our contemporary lives and so it is nice to see our worries translated to modern literature. However, sometimes the emails seem to become academic pieces of writing which interrupts the flow of the narrative in the book. 

All in all, Beautiful World, Where Are You certainly has matured Rooney’s style of writing as well as diversifying her ability to write about human experiences at different stages of life. Her writing remains Normal People-esque. If you can get past the utter pretentiousness of her characters and some of the overly-intellectualised bits of writing that could have been written to flow with the narrative, the book is a thought-provoking reflection of contemporary living post-graduation in Ireland and serves to put our human experiences and emotions central to making the world beautiful.

Mahnoor Choudhry, Co-Editor