#SheReviews Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

January 12, 2022


In one’s years as a young adult, relationships – both in terms of friendships and romantic liaisons – are often intricately fraught with painfully nuanced angst and heartbreaking regret. Such is certainly the case in well-established Irish author, Sally Rooney’s, latest achingly contemplative novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You”.

Set in contemporary Ireland, – predominantly Dublin and in an unnamed harsh, yet picturesque, village on the coast of Ireland, beside the Atlantic Ocean – this searingly reflective novel hones in accurately on the often-perplexing, yet stridently hopeful, lives of our four young protagonists – twenty-nine year old best friends Eileen and Alice, thirty-four year old Simon, and a young man called Felix.

Eileen and Alice have been firm friends since meeting as university students in Dublin, in their first year of study (Eileen had been studying English).  After university, Alice goes on to become a famously renowned and fabulously wealthy novel writer, while Eileen earns a meagre living working as an editorial assistant at a literary magazine. Alice and Eileen correspond by email for much of the novel, and it is evident from her inner musings that Alice finds the life of a well-known ‘personality’ interiorly stifling; as Alice writes to Eileen, “I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things – having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph on the internet, and reading comments about myself…it makes me miserable, and I don’t want to live this kind of life”.  Alice further confides in Eileen, “You’re right that I make too much money and live irresponsibly”. By contrast, Eileen’s abrasive sister Lola admonishes Eileen in a text “do I really want to hear about how immature I am from someone who’s stuck in a shitty job making no money and living in a kip at age 30….”

Alice heads off to New York for a period, but returns home to Ireland after suffering a catastrophically momentous nervous breakdown, which causes her to be admitted dutifully to a psychiatric hospital for a time. 

Simon first came into Eileen’s life when he came to help out on her family’s farm, one summer, when Eileen was fifteen and Simon was twenty. Eileen has been captivated and besotted with Simon ever since. Simon now has a demonstrably responsible position “as and adviser to this tiny little left-wing parliamentary group”, and as Alice tells Felix, “He’s religious you know” (Simon attends Mass regularly, on one occasion with Eileen, even though she doesn’t particularly believe in God). Simon and Eileen ‘hook up’ on a multitude of occasions when Eileen is an adult, even when Simon is in other relationships. 

Alice and Felix meet each other through the recalcitrantly modern dating app known as ‘Tinder’. Felix works in a warehouse; a job he vehemently dislikes. He is frequently emotionally sadistic towards Alice, who is somewhat fragile and self-effacing. Alice at this time is living in an old rectory in the unnamed village on the Irish coast, the icy Atlantic waters lapping nearby.

Can Eileen ever have what she wants from the emotionally distant, yet caring, Simon? Can Alice have a fulfilling relationship with Felix, in spite of his at-times cruel remarks and callous manner? As Alice tactfully divulges to Eileen, “I…feel certain it’s better to be deeply loved…..than widely liked”

Eileen, Alice, Simon and Felix emerge as significantly troubled individuals (each in their own idiosyncratic ways), yet it is almost impossible not to feel a spellbinding amount of hope for them and their sorrowful predicaments. 

Sally Rooney has written a beautiful expose on the human condition; it’s complex vagaries and optimistic outlook. I highly recommend “Beautiful World, Where Are You”. It captivated me from the first page, right through until the final words were read. Sally Rooney has written a highly intelligent and resonant read.

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