Review | Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Beautiful World, Where Are You tells the story of Alice and Eileen, two best friends approaching their thirties, and on very different trajectories. Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Italy with her. In Dublin, her best friend Eileen is getting over a break-up, and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.

Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

“Of course, in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?”

In typical Sally Rooney fashion, Beautiful World, Where Are You explores sex, friendship, and relationships alongside philosophical musings and discussions about class consciousness. I found this to be more relatable than Normal People (which I did not enjoy) and Conversations with Friends (which I liked well enough), though – the characters were closer to my age and the climate anxiety which permeated their conversations about life and love mirrored my own concerns about the state of the world and my future in it.

Alice, the novelist, was clearly a self-insert for the author, complete with a disdain for fame. I didn’t care about her relationship with Felix – in fact, I found it troubling – but her relationship with Eileen is what kept me reading. The emails to/from Eileen that sandwiched each chapter were beautiful, vulnerable, and insightful, and I would have loved to read this as an entirely epistolary novel.

Eileen was much more likeable than Alice, and I preferred her chapters. They were are also where Rooney’s writing on relationships in the digital age was able to shine: from checking up on exes and their new partners, endlessly scrolling even though you know it makes you feel bad, questioning each text you send, and the anxiety behind each message let on ‘seen,’ Sally Rooney very much captured the millenial dating experience.

Outside of the emails, Beautiful World, Where Are You is told by an omniscient, 3rd person narrator. While this made it a bit difficult to get close to the characters, it allowed for a concurrent look at each character’s life, which masterfully illustrated their class and wealth disparities.

Ultimately, Beautiful World, Where Are You is a slow-paced, character-driven story about finding hope in a world that is often hopeless. After the pandemic year that we’ve had, this message is something we all could stand to hear.

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