The collapse of the Late Bronze Age in 1200 BCE erased any existence of literacy in human society; however, in 1952 a man named Michael Ventris decoded ancient Mycenaean tablets to discover the earliest form of written Greek. This important discovery gave meaning to centuries of human language. Michael discovered and gave purpose to centuries of lost history and culture in those tablets, only to die suddenly at the age of 43. The tablets, his discovery, and his death prompt us to think: Is time connected? Is life all up to chance?
This is just one of the complicated and profound stories discussed by the main characters in the deeply philosophical and political Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney. This is the third novel of the acclaimed Irish writer, following Conversation with Friends and Normal People. The novel moves back and forth between emails exchanged by the two main characters and prose from an omniscient narrator. Beautiful World, Where Are You is a riveting intellectual read, but falls short of the plot and character development necessary to become a book readers will never forget.
The novel follows two college best friends—Alice, a novelist, and Eileen, a small Dublin writer—as they navigate their careers and romantic relationships in their late 20’s. Eileen is struggling to reconcile her current life and the one she dreamed of as an idyllic youth, while also untangling her feelings for her childhood crush. Alice deals with mental illness, caused both by early onset fame and her emotional vulnerability during a new relationship in a small coastal town. These best friends rely on each other for support through life's biggest changes.
Rooney’s philosophical themes are the heart of the novel, particularly the complex subjects of mental health and religious spirituality. Unlike her previous work featuring characters with mental illness, this novel gives weight to the pervasiveness of mental illness without making moral judgements. While the dialogue around the subject can feel forced at times, its inclusion allows for rare, but true connection with the characters. Religion features heavily through the devout Catholic character, Simon, as he contemplates spirituality as a mechanism to derive meaning from life. The characters wonder how the existence of a God can alter their perspectives and question what it means to be spiritual without necessarily believing in a God. While reading, I often had to stop to address the persistent swirls of contemplations in my own head; the powerful emotional thought left lingering effects on me. One thing this novel is not lacking is intellectual stimulation.
The novel’s most prominent reflections center on white, western, middle class women’s place in our hyper-capitalist, post- colonial world. Characters struggle with contextualizing their personal priorities with grave suffering occurring for people on the other side of the world. Rooney’s political beliefs are on full display and brazen in their delivery; the author is open about her Marxist ideology, which is reflected in her views on exploitation of the Global South. At times, the novel can feel more like an essay that deemphasizes the plot and character development as Rooney’s philosophical and political contemplations take center stage. Even so, the essayist stretches of the novel are where the book is most alluring.
The deemphasizing of the plot is exacerbated by Rooney’s nondescript writing and minimalistic dialogue. This is writing we are familiar with from her breakout novels, but the ambiguousness of her characters leaves much of the subtleties of the novel to the reader's interpretation. Her writing can leave readers disconnected from the characters, as if they exist tangentially to the story, mere vehicles with which Rooney can express her own perception of the world. Because it is difficult to become invested in the characters, the reader doesn’t really care how the novel ends. When Rooney’s personal ruminations get too dense, there is little left to keep you engaged.
Within Rooney’s dark and melancholy subtext, the novel takes a surprising—even concerningly sharp—turn into a hopeful ending. Is there a beautiful world to be found after all? Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You is worth a philosophical deep dive despite the disjunction of the plot.
Ledford is a sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics with a concentration on International Migration and a minor in Philosophy. Her favorite Rooney novel is Conversation with Friends, and she's a beekeeping enthusiast.