As I found when I first read Sally Rooney earlier this year, she once more in her latest novel nails human nature. How people communicate, how they react, how they act when they are alone. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney focuses on slightly older characters, right on the cusp of change that turning 30 can bring. (I read someone’s review that posited Rooney is writing characters who reflect her own age and if this is true, I’m really looking forward to her next novel.)
Eileen and Alice are best friends, having met in university. Eileen is recovering from the break-up of a long-term relationship while Alice is recovering from a psychiatric breakdown. She has left Dublin and sequestered herself in a former rectory in a small town. The two women write e-mails to each other, sharing their lives and thoughts. We don’t actually see them on page together until more than halfway through the novel. (More on that in a moment.)
Alice goes on a terrible Tinder date with a local man named Felix and despite them agreeing they are poorly suited, after they run into each other again, Alice impulsively invites him to join her on a work trip to Rome. From their relationship develops in fits and starts as they cautiously reveal their true, flawed selves to each other. Alice is a very successful novelist who seems to have left Dublin due to the mounting pressure of publicity tours and being in the public eye and yet she remains unable to escape these obligations even as she questions the value of her work.
Meanwhile, Eileen falls back in to the lifelong friendship she has with Simon. Five years older than her, they have known each other since she was born and been in love for almost as long. But without being able to speak honestly of their feelings together, Eileen is unsure of what kind of future she might actually want with Simon.
Eileen and Alice share their feelings and actions in their emails with utter honesty. Despite the romantic storylines (and, frankly, quite a few sex scenes) the core of the novel really is their friendship and Rooney does an excellent job of sort of building tension as we begin to want to see these two best friends interact in person together. And then when they do, there is the perhaps inevitable awkwardness of seeing in the flesh someone with whom you have been so abstractly honest. This final section of the novel where all four characters are brought together is very well done – with all the excitement of being with friends and all the sorrow when it doesn’t match up to the fantasy you created while you waited to be together.
Another thing Rooney does very well is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or read) an author do such a good job of portraying how people now actually engage with social media, online communication, and their phones physically. This is a Big Thing in books lately. Authors seem to want to show that they are modern and their characters are modern and sometimes they will shoehorn things like text conversations and internet usage into the plot and it can easily feel fake. But Rooney’s depictions felt real, like we are truly observing a person performing these actions.
Personally, I particularly enjoyed the characters conversations around religion. One character is Catholic while the others are either unsure of their thoughts on God or actively feel antagonist toward the concept. Again, these felt like honest conversations and I appreciated reading about them.