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Staff Picks: Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I wrote this blog once. Then it disappeared into the virtual ether. (My fault! Here’s your reminder to save your work in multiple places!). Fortunately, this mistake is a fitting lead-in to the book. Beautiful World, Where Are You is a contemporary novel. Author Sally Rooney captures modern life by mentioning the ubiquitous deleted text messages, either rewritten or not sent at all. The saga of my lost blog post could have easily been included in a scene of her prose. She also describes the minutiae of social media scrolling and checking dating apps. Something about her attention to these details seems to take power from these dopamine-spiking machines. More and more, I feel like a zombie when connected to these devices. However, when these activities are put into words, they become objective activities, tasks. Reading these moments of the book had an calming, almost therapeutic effect for me.

The first of Rooney’s work that I have read, I picked it up while on a bookstore hunt, looking for a travel book. I read it by pools and on the beach. It has the perfect amount of interesting relationship dynamics, steamy scenes and profound questions about the world we live in. However, It’s not heavily plot-driven, like other books that I would consider “beach reads”. Throughout the book, two protagonists, Alice and Eileen, communicate through time and space via email. Their emails provide their connection, but also a frame of reference for their individual lives. The emails are a space for big thoughts; musings on the state of the world as it is today. I loved Rooney’s self-reflexive “easter egg” included in one of the emails:

“Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life? I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilization is facing collapse. But at the same time, that is what I do every day.”

Rooney doesn’t use quotes for dialogue. This was a new device for me. At some points there can be a level of ambiguity created, requiring a reread of a passage. However, I think that this technique works perfectly for the subject matter (contemporary life). In general, life seems less formal these days: online dating and hookup culture, email and messaging apps from the workplace at all hours of the day, etc. A less formal writing method brings a meta-level integration of style that I personally appreciated. The flow between dialogue and commentary is very smooth and the emails between the two friends reads almost like the dialogue. Therefore, the characters seem to be more or less authentic in their communication in physical interactions. However, there is debate about the efficacy of this punctuation experimentation. Not everyone is on board and I don’t think it would work in all contexts.

Friendship is one the major focuses of this book. Eileen and Alice get together once within the entire book, posing the question: Is friendship relative to proximity? Their emails are so intimate, at once affectionate and accusatory. Rooney artfully creates a rich relationship with many dimensions through simple means. Through emails and developments of their separate lives she prepares a profound backdrop for their single encounter in the entire book. I was prompted to ask what makes for these special friendships of unconditional love. I’m not sure that Rooney articulates it, but she builds the space for that truth to be felt.

This novel is perfect for a book club (there is even a discussion guide included at the end). I recently went to a bridal shower and had a wonderful conversation with someone about Rooney’s work. This person was a proud member of an active book club in Atlanta. I have not been a part of a book club in the NJ area (this blog and our virtual community may be a bit of a stand in, but not quite the real thing). Judit Ward has written about similar groups here. I am interested in looking for area book clubs. Here’s what I have found so far (maybe I’ll see some of you there!):