Walk into any Waterstones in the UK and you’ll be greeted by a huge blue and yellow poster and display table promoting Sally Rooney’s third novel Beautiful people, where are you? The book follows two best friends in their twenties: Alice, a reclusive and famous novelist, and Eileen, who works for a pittance in a literary journal. Very few recent novels, if any, have been as widely anticipated as the sequel to the critically acclaimed novel. Conversations with friends (2017) and Normal people (2018), from which the hugely popular BBC series was adapted. But does it live up to the hype?
“Too often, the characters of Beautiful world to feel like sketches as thin as paper serving as spokespersons for certain themes, rather than captivating human beings in their own right “
As its serious title suggests (taken from a poem by Friedrich Schiller from 1788), Beautiful world takes itself much more seriously than its predecessors. Much of the novel is epistolary, consisting of long emails sent between Alice and Eileen. These emails deal in part with their personal lives, including Alice’s relationship with warehouse worker Felix, and Eileen’s intermittent relationship with her childhood friend Simon. However, these are mostly intellectual reflections, tackling themes as diverse as ancient history, Henry James, climate anxiety, Bible tales, and advanced capitalism. Unfortunately, the “deep” results of convoluted reflections from friends are often a chore to go through. Take a typical excerpt from the book’s first e-mail: “Markets do not preserve anything, but ingest all aspects of an existing social landscape and excrete them, devoid of meaning and memory”. Sorry what? The ideas evoked are, in principle, interesting and may well preoccupy two intellectual millennials (and readers of the novel) in their quest to make sense of modern life. Ultimately, however, Rooney’s treatment of intellectual friendship reads less like the “Movement between thought and feeling and vice versa” she claims to portray, that as a not too subtle chaining of deep thoughts in the novel – to the detriment of its fluidity and its credibility.
Too often the characters of Beautiful world the impression of being paper-thin sketches serving as a spokesperson for certain themes, rather than captivating human beings in their own right. Eileen is an insecure but exceptionally beautiful and intelligent woman seeking slightly problematic forms of male validation. Seems familiar? This sentence could easily relate to Frances or Marianne, protagonists of Rooney’s other novels. While it is reductive to read Alice as a direct counterpart to Rooney, this disgruntled contemporary literary prodigy will also be all too familiar to anyone who has read Rooney’s many interviews criticizing the cult of the famous novelist (of whom she is the best example).
What Alice has to say is often hilarious, but her witticisms seem like a brilliant way for Rooney to deviate from the more thorny but more interesting path of true reflection on the theme. It is as if the author thought that simply showing an ironic awareness of her absurd position was tantamount to treating her properly, as when she wrote “If novelists wrote honestly about their lives, no one would read them – and to rightly ! When it comes to the misfortune of Beautiful world’s self-serving and (for reasons insufficiently explored) self-destructive protagonists, we’ve heard it all before, too. This excerpt from Eileen would not seem out of place in a telenovela: “I can’t remember the last time I felt so happy. Every time something really good happens my life has to fall apart. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s me doing it.
Despite its flaws, Beautiful world has some strikingly beautiful moments, which are worth sifting through the rest. Rooney has an exceptional, almost poetic flair for conjuring up vivid images with a minimum of words. Here is Alice’s mention of Rome in an email to Eileen: “There are also dark and fragrant orange trees, little white cups of coffee, blue afternoons, golden evenings …” The dialogue is often caustically perfect, though a bit too stylized to be believable. Describing Eileen’s sister’s marriage, Rooney glides gloriously from past to present in a masterful stream of consciousness that deserves comparison with Virginia Woolf. The painstakingly narrated storytelling Author’s meticulousness can become monotonous at times, but it also acutely unearths revelations of the mundane. If you’re anything like me, for example, you might find yourself pausing in the uncomfortable recognition of this simple but brilliant description. Eileen scrolling through social media:: A report on a horrific natural disaster, a photograph of someone’s beloved pet… ”
Don’t believe the hype, but read the book anyway. He has beautifully redeeming moments, but in general he’s so shy that he borders on illegibility. Rooney certainly had to face a tall order to regain her voice after her astronomical rise to stardom, but she should have listened to her instincts. Alice writes to Eileen: “In the midst of it all, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the brink of extinction, here I am writing another email on sex and life. ‘friendship. What else is there enough to live for? Instead of thinking long and hard about the state of the world, Rooney would have been better off focusing on what she does best and what, for better or worse, readers of her novels live on: sex and friendship.
University is the independent journal of the University of Cambridge, established in its present form in 1947. In order to maintain our editorial independence, our print journal and news website do not receive any funding from the University of Cambridge or its colleges constitutive.
So we depend almost entirely on advertising for fundraising and expect to have a few tough months and years ahead.
Despite this situation, we will be looking for inventive ways to serve our readership with digital content and of course in print!
Therefore, we ask our readers, if they wish, to donate from just £ 1 to help us cover our running costs. Thank you very much, we hope you can help us!