I have to admit, Sally Rooney’s new (and highly acclaimed) novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was almost a DNF for me. From the way the book was written (no quotation marks, hardly any sensory details, paragraphs breaking all the conventional rules) to the way the story and characters were held at arm’s length.
What do I mean by “arm’s length”? We get to know each character as “a man” or “a woman”, then eventually learn their names. We don’t learn of their inner thoughts at all (until we read the letters two friends write to each other). The dialogue was stilted and awkward, and sometimes seemed like an inquisition, never a pleasant exchange. And with that, not one character could actually say what they mean. Felix probably came the closest to it, but honestly, it was like a total disconnect from what the characters were saying and what they actually wanted.
My overall rating is 3.5 stars, though I am counting this as 4 stars on my Amazon and Goodreads reviews.
Who is Sally Rooney?
This book was my introduction to Sally Rooney. Millennial author of Normal People and Conversations With Friends, Rooney has amassed an almost cult following of readers who love her unconventional way of telling a story, and the honest way she depicts characters that are unflinchingly human. And the way Rooney dismisses the rules of punctuation is kind of like being a spokesman for a generation tired of being told to keep within rules that no longer apply.
Take that, quotation marks.
I got used to it, eventually, and even grew to like it. I mean, why do we need quotation marks, anyway, except for less-skilled writers (myself included) to show that someone is speaking? Sally Rooney proved she did not need quotation marks.
There is Alice, an author who hit it out of the park with her first novel, and whose mental health is directly affected by the sudden notoriety she never actually wanted. (Side note: Is Alice actually Sally Rooney? And now that I know Alice, would Rooney think it humorous I even think that?)
Then there’s Felix, a blue collar worker Alice met on Tinder who is a bit rough around the edges and often says what he thinks.
There’s Eileen, Alice’s best friend who has spent most of her life in the shadows, never actually stating what (or who) she wants, and has kind of become everyone’s doormat.
Finally, there’s Simon, a devastatingly handsome man Eileen has known and been in love with since they were teens, and who quietly practices his Catholic faith while also bedding women without attachments.
One beef (of several) that I have with this novel is when Alice tells Felix she’s in love with him. I did not like Felix for much of the novel, and at that point, found him to be a total shit-show, especially since he was totally plastered when she told him this. He had done nothing to deserve her attention. He had been rude and standoffish, and most of what he said to her should have offended her. He thought he was so much better than he was. Before she said she loved him, she had treated him to an out-of-country vacation, allowed him into her home, and was kind to him to a fault. What did he do for her except treat her like an outsider? He redeems himself eventually (in part because he was the only character who was actually true to who he was, from start to finish), but I found it infuriating that she was in love with him.
But my biggest issue, as I stated earlier, was how every character seemed to talk around the issue they were having. No one could just talk straight! It’s like every character bent over backwards to remain polite, even Felix at times.
So why 3.5 stars?
It surprised me, too.
First, it’s the fact that I knew what the characters wanted, even when they weren’t saying as much. I realized this halfway through, that the things they were saying weren’t matching what they wanted, even though the story didn’t share their inner thoughts. The letters between Alice and Eileen served as a great tool to reveal their hearts’ desires. So did the way they moved, their hesitations, the stilted way they hid their true feelings.
Next was because the infuriating way these characters spoke to each other was very much the same way many of us speak. We’re polite when we want to be rude. We agree with the masses in social situations so we don’t stand out negatively, or with our dear friend because we love them too much to offend them. We put on our best face with those we’re still getting to know, afraid what they’ll think if we reveal our true selves. And sometimes the things we say or how we feel comes from the shy child inside of us who is desperately trying to fit in, and failing.
After almost two years of a pandemic and the loss of many social skills, I realized my frustration with their reserved dialogue was actually because I understood it all too well.
But the biggest reason for those 3.5 stars is the ending. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that you can only hide true feelings for so long before you explode, and shit hits the fan. 90% of this novel was written in a polite manner, though the tension was a gradual build. The last 10%? The gloves come off. And let me tell you, it was beautiful and glorious, and it made me cry.
Dang you, Sally Rooney. I mean, thank you. 🙂
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