What can be said about Sally Rooney that hasn’t been said before? She’s the voice of her generation; she’s overrated; she inspired a garish bucket hat that is at once a status symbol and fodder for Twitter memes. Rooney, the millennial success story, seems to be a conversation topic far more engrossing than the content of her two (soon to be three) best-selling novels, the latter of which was adapted into a hit Hulu series. And yet, Rooney is completely uninterested in the discourse surrounding herself — in fact, she appears to be increasingly confounded by it. “Why should someone have to disclose facts about their upbringing and family life to the public, just because they’ve written a novel?” she asks The Guardian.
Though she may beg to differ, Rooney’s third book — an acquisition readers and writers alike have circled voraciously since its announcement last January — may be her most overtly personal work yet.
Beautiful World, Where Are You follows two longtime friends in their late 20s. Alice is a successful novelist who bristles against the fame her career has brought her, criticizing the culture of celebrity and describing those who actively seek publicity as “deeply psychologically ill.” Eileen is an assistant editor at a literary magazine who struggles to connect with her family and feels she hasn’t achieved enough in her 29 years. In a series of cerebral emails sent back and forth, Alice and Eileen parse their respective relationships with Felix (a warehouse-worker Alice met on Tinder) and Simon (Eileen’s childhood friend and occasional lover) and their place in an ever-decaying world.
The novel feels like a natural progression for Rooney and the characters she creates. Beautiful World‘s cast is as quintessentially analytical as Normal People‘s Marianne or Conversations with Friends’s Frances, but the stakes have changed. The freedom afforded by 20-somethingdom is slipping and the world looks different than it used to. Alice and Eileen are forced to confront the questions of forever in a way that Rooney’s protagonists haven’t before. It’s hard not to imagine this falling in line with Rooney’s own artistic and personal progression, from a 26-year-old debut novelist to a more seasoned and perhaps cynical literary figure at 30.
As someone drifting ever-nearer to 30 myself, Beautiful World resonated in a way that Rooney’s earlier works did not. That said, teetering on the cusp of your thirties is hardly a prerequisite for reading the novel. Though it’s not hard to see how two white women’s grievances about their careers and love lives (particularly one who is admittedly wealthy and famous) could be perceived as whiny or indulgent, Rooney lays the groundwork to defy that reading. There’s a weight, an urgency that grounds Alice and Eileen’s narratives, and it’s the same weight and urgency every one of us has been living with for the past 18 months, or four years and 10 months, rather (but who’s counting!). The panic we’ve endured since the mid-2010s, the fear and uncertainty, pervades Alice and Eileen’s conversations.
Beautiful World is timely, of course. But unlike many pandemic-era works, the novel doesn’t exploit the events of our “new normal” or the collective trauma that has resulted from it. Like every Rooney novel, Beautiful World is at its core a character study — we learn and grow with Alice and Eileen (and to a lesser extent, Felix and Simon) over the course of 353 cinematically rendered pages. Who will play them in the Hulu series? I found myself asking. Because if there’s one thing we can count on in this chaotic world, it’s that Sally Rooney’s new novel will be the epicenter of the next cultural conversation.