Book review and synopsis for Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, Sally Rooney's latest modern day romance.
In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome 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?
The one-paragraph version: Alice and Eileen are best friends from college, both 29 or 30-ish. Alice is a successful novelist who has recently had a nervous breakdown. She starts seeing Felix, a warehouse worker she met off Tinder. Meanwhile, Eileen is an editorial assistant at a literary magazine in Dublin. She starts a casual relationship with Simon, a handsome childhood friend. Felix initially resists a relationship with Alice, saying that she likes him behaving poorly towards her so that she can be morally superior. Simon, too, doesn't really pursue Eileen (even though he has always loved her), saying that she pushes people away. Alice and Eileen also have tension in their friendship, since each feels they care more than the other does. In the end, both couples (and the women) are able to be more vulnerable with one another. The couples end up together and the women forge a stronger friendship.
The book opens in a village a few hours away from Dublin with Alice Kelleher meeting a man from Tinder, Felix Brady, at a bar. Alice is a novelist who is new in town and who has published a successful book, and Felix is a warehouse worker. The date is awkward and the two don't quite hit it off.
Meanwhile, in Dublin, Eileen Lydon (Alice's best friend), 29, meets up with a family friend, Simon Costigan, for coffee. Eileen is an editorial assistant at a literary magazine. Eileen was a social outcast in primary and secondary school, and her older sister Lola was mean to her. Simon (who is 5 years older than her) was the first person to really befriend her when she was a teenager. Later, when she's 21, she ends up sleeping with Simon after he has a bad breakup, but nothing comes of it from there. In present day, Simon tells her he's bringing a woman he's been seeing (Caroline) to Lola's upcoming wedding, but he offers to go alone for Eileen's sake if she wants.
(Throughout the book, Alice and Eileen write letters back and forth updating each other on their personal lives and detailing their thoughts on various topics. In the letters, you can see that they care about each other a lot, but that there is some unspoken tension between them as well.)
Alice and Felix later run into each other in town and Felix invites her to a party at his place so she can meet some new people. Alice attends. She ends up telling Felix about how she had a nervous breakdown a while ago which landed her in the hospital for a short time. She also impulsively invites Felix on
a work trip to Rome, offering to pay for everything since he can't afford to go otherwise.
In Dublin, Eileen repeatedly looks up her ex, Aidan Lavin, online to see what he's up to on social media. One night, she calls up Simon and has phone sex with him. A short while later, Eileen is upset to find out that Aidan has started dating someone new, and she ends up going to Simon's place and initiating sex with him. The next morning, she goes to Mass with him (because Simon is devoutly Catholic).
In Rome, Felix says to Alice that he knows she's in love with him. They later have a heart-to-heart where they each admit bad things they've done in the past, and Felix tells Alice that he likes her. They sleep together.
Meanwhile, in Dublin, Eileen and Simon continue hanging out and hooking up. However, they go to party where some else is flirting with Simon, where people are joking about how Simon likes younger women and they're talking about how great Caroline is. Eileen gets upset about all of it and leaves. Simon follows her and they argue. Simon says that he's asked her out before and she wasn't interested. It wasn't until he started seeing Caroline that she started wanting to sleep with him. Simon and Eileen decide to go back to be just being friends.
A while after returning from Rome, Alice and Felix finally see each other again. Felix has "ghosted" Alice since the trip, and Alice is upset with him. Felix says he's not looking for any "big commitments". Alice is fine with it as long as he doesn't ghost her again. They start casually seeing each other. One day, Felix admits that he's not known as the most reliable guy around town and has debts, but he reassures her that he won't be asking her for money. Later, they get into an argument when Felix accuses Alice of liking it when he "acts badly" towards her since it puts her morally above him, which is where she likes to be. Still, they keep seeing each other.
In June, Eileen and Simon see each other again at Lola's wedding and it reawakens their feelings for one another. Afterwards, they both head to Alice's place since they'd previously arranged to go see Alice. The first day there is idyllic with Felix hanging out with the three of them and Alice feeling very happy to have them all there. Simon also reveals that he broke up with Caroline because he was in love with Eileen.
The next day, Eileen tells Alice how Simon is emotionally repressed, and that he only loves when she is helpless and dependent on him. That night, Eileen and Simon look at wedding photos and end up having sex. However, afterwards Eileen says she just wants to stay friends. Meanwhile, Alice and Felix get into a discussion about how Alice claims she so in love with Felix, but Felix thinks they actually like each other the same.
Eventually, the two women also end up confronting the tension in their relationship. Eileen has some resentment over Alice's wealth and lifestyle. Both women also feel that they care more about the other person than vice versa. Afterwards, the two men comfort their respective partners and remind each of the women of how much the other cares for them. Felix says that Alice seems to think no one cares about her, even when they do. Simon also tells Eileen that he has always loved her, but she makes it hard for people like him and Alice to express their feelings to her because she pushes them away before they can.
The book ends with Alice and Eileen making up. It then jumps forward 18 months and we see that both couples are still together. (The pandemic is going on now.) Eileen has just found out that she's pregnant and she's very happy about it.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is Sally Rooney’s latest release, which has book clubs abuzz with excitement or irritation, depending on how you feel about her. She’s become somewhat of a controversial figure with some people absolutely loving her bleak modern-day romances and others bemoaning her writing and angrily denouncing what they view as an undeserved literary status.
While I’m not really a Sally Rooney fan, I also don’t like to tell people what the “should” or “should not” enjoy. (I realize this seems to contrary to being someone who reviews books, but my goal is to help lead people to books they might enjoy, not to tell people what they must or must not like.)
Anyway, in Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney continues her Tumultuous Relationships book series (beginning with her first two novels Conversations with Friends and Normal People), whereby young women chase after their respective love interests, resulting in miscommunications, too many things left unsaid and strained will-they-or-won’t-they scenarios.
Here, Rooney’s novel is centered about the romantic exploits of two best friends, Alice and Eileen. Alice is a novelist with one successful book under her belt, but she’s also recently had a nervous breakdown that landed her in a psychiatric facility for a short time. Eileen is beautiful and works as an assistant at a literary magazine. Alice is busy pursuing Felix, a working-class man she has recently met on Tinder. While Eileen is pursuing her old crush, a handsome family friend named Simon.
Like her first two books, the story is told with a focus on the women, and the narrative is centered around the push and pull of their relationships. The relationships here are similar in some ways to the ones in her previous books, but not carbon copies. Meanwhile, cursory discussions of things like political philosophy, art and other high-brow topics are scattered throughout the book.
I was glad to find that Beautiful World is a more mature book than her two prior novels. The two female protagonists write letters back and forth, which provides an Rooney with the opportunity to provide some perspective on the characters’ mindsets and sometimes a counterpoint to the other character’s comments.
For example, in one instance, the over-romanticized way that Eileen describes a night spent with Simon in a letter to Alice contrasts starkly with the sad, somewhat desperate way the events are actually narrated in the book. In other instances, the two women call each other out, such as when the other seems to be wallowing in self-pity or is making questionable decisions. I often feel like the epistolary form in novels ends up being a little gimmicky, but here Rooney really makes good use of it.
There’s also less of an obsession with being “cool” and “popular” than was seen in Rooney’s prior novels (which really irked me about those first two books). It’s not entirely gone — Rooney still feels the need to make clear what each woman’s social standing was at various points in their life and she repeats the same template of having a character who was a social outcast in high school being very popular in college. However, it’s more of an aside than something that’s harked on though-out the book.
Instead, in Beautiful World, Rooney spends more time on things like Simon’s Catholicism, ruminations about the current state of politics, the publishing industry, thoughts about the women’s careers and other more topics. Though these discussions are often more of a reflection of the characters’ mindsets at the time than an attempt to address these things substantively.
I should mention that many of Rooney’s writing habits that don’t sit well with me are still very much present as well. There is an element of repetitiveness in her novels with all her female characters seeming like slight variations of the same person. There’s so much pretension at every turn. There’s still no punctuation. The relationship dynamics have a sameness to them, even if there are slight variations. There’s also the same victim complex that permeates her protagonists.
Read it or Skip it?
The short version: Beautiful World, Where Are You is a more mature novel and represents growth for Sally Rooney as a writer, but it still feels like more of the same as well.
The longer version: I think fans of Rooney’s prior novels will love this book, and I do think it’s in some ways a stronger novel than her previous ones. Some people who disliked the first two books could consider giving this one a chance to see if Beautiful World appeals to you more, especially if you were someone who was on the fence about her (as opposed to outright loathing the first two books).
For me, personally, I think there’s just something inherently boring about reading about people pining after someone who doesn’t love/like them enough or isn’t mentally ready to be in a healthy relationship or people pursuing somewhat hopeless situations in general. When I was younger, I was more interested in this type of thing, seeing it as an engrossing will-they-or-won’t-they situation.
However, over time I’ve come to find the whole exercise really pointless. Ultimately, people who are lukewarm about you or too wrapped up in their own insecurities to be in a healthy relationship are just not viable prospects. My view is that unhealthy, tumultuous courtships tend to result in unhealthy, tumultuous relationships, so there’s nothing particularly romantic or sad about them ending up together or not.
Ultimately, I think Rooney will continue to elicit very divisive opinions, just because there’s things she does very well (like managing to evoke a range of very specific and relatable feelings from relationships that we’ve all had before and her careful fixation on the nuances in the interactions between people) and there’s things that will continue to irk people (how her protagonists constantly see themselves as victims of the world around them, the lack of punctuation, the similarities in the characters she writes, etc.).
Still, Beautiful World, Where Are You shows some compelling growth for her as a writer. Even if I wasn’t terribly impressed by it, I still liked it better than her first two books, and I enjoyed it enough to be curious about what she comes up with next. I think it’ll be interesting to see how her writing continues to develop.
What were your initial impressions of the relationships described in the book, and how did your impressions of the relationships between these four characters change throughout the book?
What did you think of the four main characters and were there some that you preferred over the others? Did you think some of them were more sympathetic or more relatable that the others? Were you rooting for any of them to get together?
What did you think of the character of Lola and why do you think Rooney describes her the way she does (in her being mean to Eileen, etc.)?
Why do you think Rooney decided to tell parts of this story in the form of letters?
In certain parts of the book, Rooney describes the actions of two different characters in a side-by-side type fashion (where she describes what one of them is doing and what the other is doing at the exact same time). What do you think she was trying to achieve by doing this, and do you think it was effective?
What do you think Felix meant (in Chapter 27) when he told Eileen that Simon and Alice weren’t like Felix and Eileen?
How does religion play into the characters such as Simon and Alice? Why do you think Rooney depicted them this way?
What did you think of Rooney’s discussions of things like politics, or art, or the concept of beauty?
In what parts of the book did you think Rooney was talking most directly to the reader (as in expressing her own opinions as opposed to those of the character she was describing)? What did you think about Alice’s views on fame and being a celebrity author?
Did you like the ending of the book, why or why not?
Why do you think Rooney chose this title for this book?
Recommended Published September 7, 2021
Page Count 288 pages
Goodreads3.89 (out of 5)
From the Publisher
In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Alice is a novelist who meets Felix, a warehouse worker, from Tinder. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a handsome, older childhood friend.
As they navigate these relationships, differences in class or lifestyles, miscommunications, and things left unsaid get in the way. Once again, Rooney offers up a compelling modern will-they-or-won't-they love story.