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In Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, Love Leaps Over All Obstacles

In Beautiful World, Where Are You, the biggest obstacles aren’t material. They’re the barriers to connection and love the protagonists put in their own way.

Sally Rooney at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 22, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Simone Padovani / Awakening / Getty Images)

Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World Where Are You, takes almost its full length to suddenly snap its many disparate pieces — unlikely and reluctant lovers, strained friendships, questioned careers — into place in a coherent whole. You don’t think the moment when the book reveals its essence will come, but then it does, an aha! surfacing slowly enough to allow you to enjoy its arrival but then quickly revealing itself to be so robust and fully formed that you wonder how you didn’t see it coming all along.

Beautiful World is a love story. It is also a novel about class and crisis, and how these phenomena that rule our world shape our relationships with one another. Rooney seems to be grappling with questions about her own life and work: “Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life?” one of our main characters, Eileen, asks her college friend in an email. She continues: “I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse.”

Rooney also seems to be wrestling with the huge question of how to live — as in, how to carry out a day-to-day life — as a Marxist, a person at once fully aware of the depths of the world’s rot and yet still optimistic about the fate of humanity. Beautiful World’s characters grapple with these questions, too, transiting in and out of cynicism, hopefulness, resignation, and fulfillment. They struggle with that ultimate of questions — will I ever find and keep true love? — the answer to which will trump the answers to any of their other queries.

Unlike Rooney’s past novels, Conversations With Friends and Normal People, Beautiful World is long and embellished; it could be easy, among diverging plotlines and lengthy character backstories, to feel like Rooney is taking us on a very long yet ultimately pointless trip. Beautiful World is also much more crowded than Rooney’s past work, with scores of secondary characters orbiting the four protagonists, each of whom are cast in equally full light. (Rooney seems to have taken to heart the criticisms of Normal People that there were no real characters in it other than its protagonists, Marianne and Connell.)

Alice is a successful novelist, plucked from the world she once shared with college friend Eileen by money and fame. Eileen, meanwhile, feels like she’s been left behind in their old life, spending her days at a copyediting job at a literary magazine. Rooney opens up space around them, ending chapters in lightly metaphorical imagery — “Summer morning. Cold clear water cupped in the palm of a hand.” — or vistas of the vast world surrounding our characters — “And out the windows the sky was still dimming, darkening, the vast earth turning slowly on its axis.” Doors close between us and, for example, a couple entering a room; we don’t get to see what happens inside. Someone whispers in an ear, and we don’t hear what she says.

Beautiful World’s characters are less immediately accessible than past Rooney characters, their distance making us more acutely aware of the vastness of the world around them and the space that vastness has put between them. They’re aware of their place, too — so aware, in fact, that at times the space between them threatens to become a permanent barrier, isolating them in their own little worlds. They’ll spend the whole novel chafing against those barriers, trying to figure out exactly how they got there — and how they might find the courage to remove them.

A Collection of Little Individual Worlds

The first half of Beautiful World, whose chapters alternate between email exchanges between friends-since-college Alice and Eileen and typical novelistic storytelling, is full of this awareness of place and its concomitant discomforts. Alice, living in an Irish countryside town after stints in New York City, dealing with unwanted fame, and white-knuckling it through a mental health crisis in a hospital, starts dating a local man, Felix, who she meets on Tinder. Felix works at a warehouse; he’s cranky and rude and not well-read. Even though Alice is famous, he doesn’t know who she is and doesn’t seem to care. He takes her to parties where his friends find out who Alice is and tease him for it. Early on, Alice asks him to go to a literary conference with her in Rome, and he says yes.

The whole trip, the difference in their class positions is grossly palpable. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, after Alice accidentally sees that Felix has been watching what looks like degradation porn on his phone, he admits to a particularly egregious sexist act from his youth. Alice is jarred — maybe not only because of Felix’s admitted behavior but also because she might not know anyone else who would cop to similar acts. In this moment, it seems impossible that Alice and Felix could ever really relate to each other; they are each suspended and sealed off inside their individual worlds, as if in amber.

At the same time, Alice is resentful of the world she moves in, accusing fellow novelists of only pretending to care about the state of the real world while not engaging in it at all. Still, she’s begrudgingly a part of it. We don’t see her toying with the idea of quitting writing to join Felix at the warehouse.

Meanwhile, Eileen spends her days “moving commas around” and her nights getting into arguments about the state of the world, politics, climate change, and recycling. In one scene, a group of friends and acquaintances debate Marxism, one guy insisting that “working doesn’t make you working class.” Eileen blithely declares that she doesn’t care that people are just now realizing Marxism is good: “welcome aboard, comrades.” She’s on her phone a lot, sometimes using social media to stalk her ex-boyfriend Aidan — they weren’t happy, but she’s still unhappy it ended — and sometimes messaging her childhood crush Simon, a devout Catholic with a habit of dating much younger women and with whom she has a complicated, if clichéd, will-they-won’t-they relationship.

These scenes, stretching well into the first half of the novel, are tense and uneasy, our characters looking at their own lives as if through glass and putting on their politics as they would outfits, some more ill-fitting and itchy than others. They’re so anxious about their position — class and otherwise — and how it might be perceived that they have a very hard time fully relating to anyone at all.

In their emails, Eileen and Alice think their way through problems out loud, together — I can’t believe my life turned out this way, why did I end up in this line of work, who is this guy you keep mentioning, are you sleeping with him — but they also perform for each other, acting out the person they think they should be, typing out the thoughts they think they should have. Between the lines of the emails is the constant pressure of the unanswerable question: What am I supposed to be doing?

Will They Find Each Other?

It would be easy to let the presence of that question imply that Beautiful World is a coming-of-age novel. But it isn’t; these characters are nearing their thirties. With that question at its core, Beautiful World is a novel of and for our current — heady, confused, righteously indignant yet directionally unclear — moment.

Alice and Eileen are anti-capitalists; they agree that the world is going to hell but don’t see how that changes anything about their daily lives. They do not know what they are supposed to be doing. Alice goes on writing; Eileen goes on moving commas around. Alice goes to Rome with Felix. Eileen sleeps with Simon and wonders out loud whether winning a better world is fundamentally incompatible with living a fulfilling life. Depressingly, she thinks the answer is yes.

I want to shake her. What is it that we socialists are fighting for, if not a fulfilling life? And how will we remember it’s worth fighting for if we don’t try to get as close to it as we can, right now? I know hundreds of socialists; most of us are always asking ourselves how much sacrifice is enough and how much is too much. How do we balance our desire for love, for fulfillment, for happiness, with our desire to win — and our need to fight for — a world where we can all have those things more easily?

Sally Rooney in Cambridge in 2017. (Photo: Chris Boland / www.chrisboland.com)

As these characters try to find their way to one another and themselves, they sometimes drift toward caricatures of who they might be. Felix wants to settle for a companion, his hopes for his life bounded by the material limitations his class status has imposed on him; other characters we might more easily identify as middle-class go after some version of petit-bourgeois romantic love. The difference in Alice’s and Felix’s class positions mounts and runs through almost every exchange.

In one scene, Felix cuts his hand open at work and is not surprised when Alice is unhappy about it. Of course she would be, and of course the accident couldn’t be helped; these things happen to workers like him, and he finds the fact that she doesn’t understand annoying — and annoyingly predictable. The tension seems inescapable and irresolvable, and so takes on an existential quality, making Alice and Felix uneasy around each other and in their own skin.

Will they finally find each other? Will they be able to overcome the distance between them and exist in one, singular, beautiful world?

Love Is the Bedrock

There are a series of big fights, a blow-up that lasts a few pages, and then everybody calms down. Rooney smooths the paths our characters take back to one another. The end of the novel has the true-to-life feeling of everything being right after you thought it would be wrong forever. For all the discussion of her Marxism, both in this novel and in general, Rooney’s insistence seems to be the opposite of a vulgar socialist-realist: the biggest obstacles to overcome on the way to a happy life — to a beautiful world — are the ones we put in our own way. We ask the wrong questions (what should I be doing?); we fear being loved; we look at our lives as frozen and unchangeable.

Not that any of our characters have such huge material impediments to begin with. Eileen and Simon, having come from similar backgrounds and known each other since childhood, only have their personal neuroses to overcome. They have been driven apart by Simon’s ambition and Eileen’s relative lack thereof, by Simon’s self-searching through religious devotion and a career in humanitarian policymaking, by Eileen’s feeling of having been passed over by the life she was meant to have to instead edit other people’s writing.

But their bond predates any of that. It predates their jobs, and Simon’s religion, and Eileen’s failed relationship with Aidan, and Simon’s disappointing his mother by not being a doctor. It’s innocent, unadulterated. There are no complications beyond the ones they might create for themselves with their own anxieties, unresolved traumas, egos, self-sabotage. There are no major material obstacles, no children from a previous marriage, no alimony to pay, no expensive Dublin rent that one person can make while the other can’t, as in Normal People.

The world and its fate is something to worry about — Simon is dedicating his whole career to it. But ultimately, it matters very little for the outcomes of their lives. Rooney posits that the largest thing holding Eileen and Simon together is their love and their desire for its hugeness, and that the largest thing holding Eileen and Simon apart is their love and their fear of its hugeness. I believe her — but I would do so more readily if this love had more concrete obstacles to overcome.

Meanwhile, the tension in the relationship between Alice and Felix, born of their light class antagonism, gradually dissolves. We learn that Felix’s recently deceased mother has left him and his brother a house, which, when it sells, will turn into a large sum of money for Felix. Alice, meanwhile, is rich — very rich, maybe a millionaire, she says. She can, practically, afford to fall in love with Felix — it’s not like she needs two incomes to pay rent. She might even buy the house she’s renting. Their class antagonism has been little more than hand-wringing.

Late into the novel, the aha! moment emerges. The pandemic and its harsh threat of death have seemingly snapped our characters’ messy, only-halfway-fulfilled lives into place. Everyone’s gotten their heads out of their asses; their anxieties and fears have finally dissolved. They’ve found the courage to find one another. As it turns out, Beautiful World is just (“just”) a love story. Aha. Politics, religion, jobs, class, fame, the world turning on its axis — in the end, it’s all very interesting, very compelling window-dressing for the core of it all: the love between Simon and Eileen, between Alice and Felix, between Eileen and Alice.

Rooney is ridiculously optimistic. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, as in Conversations With Friends, as in Normal People, love leaps over obstacles, material and otherwise. After all the tension in the book’s first three hundred pages, our characters find frustratingly frictionless fulfillment. They have created their own personal beautiful worlds.

“I know I am lucky in so many ways,” writes Alice to Eileen. “And when I forget that,” she goes on, “I just remind myself of the fact that Felix is alive, and you are, and Simon is, and then I feel wonderfully and almost frighteningly lucky, and I pray that nothing bad will ever happen to any of you.” The world goes on around them; they’re still worried about its fate, but they have chosen to be happy; they have chosen to love. Beautiful World presents love and struggle as a zero-sum game — you’re either fighting or you’re loving — and as an escape hatch from the world and its miseries. While I was moved by Rooney’s depiction of the love between her characters, while I believe in its enormity and its transcendent power, I don’t believe that it frees any of us from the duty to struggle. Love is not the salve that makes it easier to live in a cruel world; it is the bedrock from which we struggle for a beautiful one.