BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU. By Sally Rooney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 pages. $ 28.
“Life is more changeable than I thought,” writes Eileen, one of Sally Rooney’s two protagonists in her new novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You”. This is the same Eileen who wrote earlier in the novel, “Aren’t we unhappy unborn babies at the end of the world?” After that, there was no chance for the planet and no chance for us.
How Eileen and her best friend Alice go from unhappy babies to inhabitants of a beautiful world is the story of Rooney’s third novel. The change Eileen marvels at is moving away from millennial fear and towards old sturdy habits: love, marriage, parenthood, a terraced house with pencil on the wallpaper and Lego bricks. On the ground.
As fresh as they are, Rooney’s novels trail traces of ancient forms. Despite all their knowledge, Eileen and Alice need to be educated like the world. “Beautiful World Where Are You” tells about their late arrival into adulthood.
To begin with: a woman sitting in a hotel bar looks at the door. It’s Alice, an Irish writer who moved to a seaside town on a whim. Her Tinder date Felix works in a warehouse. Alice is casual and witty. Felix is ââmore likely to guess the questions and to feel challenged by them. The evening ends with a failed seduction, and that’s it.
Except that it is not finished, in more than one respect. Rooney is the literary queen of unbalanced relationships. Age, money, intelligence, charisma, power, appearance – all the things that divide and classify people – work overtime in his books. Felix won’t go and Alice won’t want him to go.
Pieces of the novel come in the form of emails. It is a very realistic arrangement: action followed by reflection on action, living and reliving in memory what has just happened or what has happened for a long time. Life goes by quickly, but it lingers and takes on meaning with each story.
The emails are some of the best parts of the novel. As they go about their business (Alice as a famous novelist and Eileen as a writer for a literary magazine) and fun (the two find themselves in love), the email exchanges between Alice and Eileen, with their juicy revelations , their reproaches and their theories, lend an intellectual structure which is important to the plot. In Rooney’s work, meaning evolves by repetition. Everything ends up turning into words and sparkles.
The central action of the novel follows the twin loves of Alice / Felix and Eileen / Simon. The division of classes in Rooney’s Ireland still marks a sharp line between academics and the working classes. Felix is ââthe most astute and flexible character in the novel. Despite his merry name, Felix is ââdrawn into disappointment. He observes and is able to identify the misfortune of others without announcing his own.
Alice shares Rooney’s career and fame, but she longs for the clarity of her early years of endeavor. She tells Felix: âWhen I look back on those years, I feel touched and almost saddened by the simplicity of my life because I knew what I had to do and I did it, that’s all. ” Now she can only sigh, “They never tire of giving me awards, do they?” It’s a shame that I got tired of receiving them so quickly, otherwise my life would be endless fun.
Simon is apparently the opposite of Felix: an Oxford graduate with serious political work in Dublin. He considered the priesthood, and still goes to mass, without fanfare. Felix suspects that his secret is a passion for good, which Felix identifies as wanting to be a “little Jesus”.
Simon grew up as an older local boy during Eileen’s rural childhood. When he left for Oxford, she hid in her room crying, until he came to promise her, “You and I are going to be friends for the rest of our lives.”
They are in love, their happiness only nuanced by Eileen’s distrust of anything so simply good. Even Alice recognizes the difference between her and Eileen early on: âYou’re not like me. You are going to have a happy life.
Rooney’s suggestive title comes from an 18th century poem by Franz Schiller, with a difference. In Schiller’s poem, the line ends with a question mark. Rooney’s title is a bit more emphatic, perhaps learning toward a statement of faith. Her novel is crossed by moments of beauty and tenderness. The beautiful people exist, she seems to say, here, now, and waiting to be found.
Critical Catherine holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.