“Beautiful World, Where Are You,” Sally Rooney’s third novel, is a marvelous display of deft description and skillful storytelling. It’s safe to say that Rooney’s smash hit, “Normal People,” wasn’t her last masterpiece; rather, it was clearly just the beginning of her (hopefully) long lasting and successful career.
“Beautiful World” tells the story of best friends Alice Kelleher and Eileen Lydon from college to early 30s; they live apart but stay connected over email, and are forever intertwined through lasting friendship. Of course there are other characters, like both women’s respective love interests, as well as Eileen’s chaotic sister Lola, but Alice and Eileen are the main focus of the novel.
I would almost say that giving Eileen and Alice separate novels altogether could have been smart, but the way in which every character interacts with one another is more than enough to convince me otherwise. Ever the Irishwoman, Rooney has set all three of her books in or around Dublin. If you want my version of an enhanced reading experience, read every line in an Irish accent — I promise it helps.
Rooney’s specialty is making the ordinary extraordinary. In order to achieve this effect, there are descriptions that, at first glance, feel nothing more than decorative. Upon closer inspection, you come to realize that without these descriptions you’re simply reading a book versus living in the world Rooney has created.
While this technique is evident throughout Rooney’s catalog, I only just noticed it while reading “Beautiful World.” Actions like spooning out fruit crumble, taking off the lid on a water bottle and screwing said lid back on, and turning onto one’s side are just a few of the many examples I could pull from the book.
The reason this descriptive style is so significant is because it defies what English students like myself have heard in every creative writing class ever: if it doesn’t move the plot forward, dismiss it. The thing is, all of Rooney’s novels are completely character-driven. When people ask me what any of her books are about, the only appropriate answer I can give is life — life, relationships and the world at large.
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Rooney’s work is the way she writes intimate scenes. Oftentimes, especially in books, these can seem gratuitous and even crass. However, because Rooney weaves in those simple actions that slow down the moment, any sexual intimacy shown is graceful and real. Unfortunately, realistic portrayals of women in the sphere of sex and intimacy are hard to come by in mainstream fiction, but Rooney has shown just that.
No other author has been able to capture, scene by scene, such an accurate depiction of modern life for the young woman quite like Rooney. This skill is thanks in part to only being 30 years old herself. I suspect the experiences of Alice (a famous novelist) and Eileen (a literary magazine editor) are heavily influenced by her own, which only propels the believability of this book even higher.
Rooney’s complete mastery of the English language has allowed her to showcase the beauty in simplicity, of which there is plenty of in “Beautiful Word.” I found this book so incredibly easy to read; this isn’t due to the lack of complex themes, ideas or vocabulary. Rather, it’s the way the pages flow — the way thoughts become actions become thoughts once again. Every line, no matter how tedious it might seem, is written with intention and artistry so that we as readers can glide through the book as if we were watching a film.
Emma Trevino is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @itsemmatr