In Review

Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You: what the critics are saying

The Irish author‘s new book has been described as her best work yet - but not everyone is totally convinced

Readers worldwide have been eagerly anticipating today’s release of the third novel by Sally Rooney as critics deliver their verdicts.

The 30-year-old Irish author’s 2017 debut, Conversations with Friends, was widely acclaimed, and her second book, Normal People, was adapted into a Bafta-winning 2020 BBC television series of the same name.

Now, almost three years to the day since the publication of her last novel, Rooney’s latest work, Beautiful World, Where Are You, has become “one of the most hyped book releases in the literary calendar”, said The Guardian. Indeed, “people have been so desperate to get hold of it” that uncorrected proof copies have been “sold online for hundreds of dollars”.

The book takes its title from a Friedrich Schiller poem that praises “a mythic past when contact with the divine was part of daily life”, explained author Caleb Crain in The Atlantic. Rooney’s plot follows best friends Alice Kelleher, a “young Dublin novelist who has moved to the west of Ireland after a nervous breakdown in New York”, and her best friend Eileen Lydon, who “works at a literary magazine and thinks of herself as socially awkward”. 

The character of Alice “deeply dislikes the scrutiny brought by her wild success” as a writer, added the BBC, and Rooney has spoken about how she used the plot to work through some of her own issues.

“That is why I had to write this book,” she told The New York Times (NYT), “because my life had become so dominated for a time by the success of my previous two.”

Whether her latest release will be equally well received by readers remains to be seen, although the critics’ reviews are generally favourable.

Writing for the NYT, Real Life author Brandon Taylor described Rooney’s third book as “funny and smart” and her “best novel yet”.

Fellow author Crain is also enthusiastic. Rooney intersperses long email exchanges between Alice and Eileen with “narration from a third-person omniscient point of view”, he wrote in The Atlantic. This is “the first time Rooney has tried this in a novel, and I felt the excitement of watching a serious artist try out a new tool”.

Critic Johanna Thomas-Corr isn’t entirely convinced, however. Writing for The Sunday Times, she argued that the email format felt “like a cynical way to shoehorn in zeitgeisty talking points”. But, she added, this “epistolary exchange eventually becomes a moving and honest channel of intimacy between the two women”.

Alongside the email chats, “there are also text conversations, over-detailed internet searches and unnecessary descriptions of tech activity”, wrote Ordinary People author Diana Evans in the FT. At times, the result is a “rather robotic, plodding spatial delineation”, but perhaps the point of the “inordinate tracking” is to highlight “our reliance on [technology’s] power to both guide and connect us”, Evans suggested.

Either way, Thomas-Corr has reservations about this departure in style. “Beautiful World faithfully reproduces and remixes all of the elements that have turned the Irish novelist... into a unique, beloved, bestselling literary sensation”, she said in The Sunday Times.

“However, it does so in a way that feels a little uncanny and a little mechanical, lacking the breath of human inspiration.”

Anthony Cummins warns in The Guardian that fans hoping for a Normal People 2 will be disappointed. “It’s earnest stuff,” he wrote, and “anyone who binge-watched [the television show’s stars] Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones might well start to hanker for rather less theory and a bit more will-they-won’t-they”. 

The Times' deputy books editor James Marriott has no such reservations, and praised the prose in Beautiful World for being “free of moments of clumsiness (especially about metaphor) that marked Normal People and Conversations with Friends”.

Rooney’s ideas are now “more fully, poetically developed”, he added. “The emotional control and technical mastery of the book’s final pages reveal her as a novelist who will soon be able to do more or less as she likes - if she’s not there already.”

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