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Content warnings for Beautiful World, Where Are You provided at the bottom of this post, for those who would find them useful. You can find further details on content warnings here.
Summary of 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 worry about sex and friendship 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?bookshop.org
My Spoilery Thoughts on Beautiful World Where Are You
First of all, I want to start by saying that if you are Sally Rooney, don’t read this post. (Though I would be honored if that were the case.) Not because this book was bad, but because I had a lot of mixed feelings about Beautiful World, Where Are You, and I say some things that are definitely intended for readers, not the writer.
This might be a slightly different Very Spoilery Chat, because this time, I have a few things I desperately want to address. I had originally intended to do a normal review, but decided that enough people are reading and reviewing this one that it wouldn’t be all that helpful to write my own — especially because I still have so many feelings I need to deal with.
I’m not entirely sure how to go about this to be honest — I had so much to scribble down that my notes are a bit of a mess. I might post some verbatim, but I also think there are some thoughts that I will need to explain a little more in depth, because wow there are sure some complex topics addressed in this thing. Right, enough of that, let’s get to it.
Let’s get through this thing. First off, the title still makes me wanna vom. Maybe I’m risking sounding unenlightened or whatever but no, there was no rewarding revelation about why this novel received such a dogshit title. Ditto for the summary, which I am just now reading for the express purpose of placing it in this post. Just no. Like I thought we were over this dumb white people stuff.
The Artist vs. the Art
Anyone else think that both Alice and Eileen were based on Rooney herself? I know it is pretty basic to say that the author has projected themselves onto their characters — and it isn’t at all a criticism. It did feel like there was a bit of Rooney’s own anger in there, especially when it comes to Alice.
Sad, tortured Alice. Look, I enjoy raw stories like this, in which people deal realistically with mental illness — even when Alice is clearly privileged and has the money to deal with it, because that’s still a totally valid story. But when it comes to blaming mental illness on other things — like, for example, being rich and famous and not having people enjoy your talent in the way that you want them to — then I think that’s a bit misleading.
Because look, mental illness is an illness. It is heavily suggested that Alice had a breakdown because she doesn’t like her fame, but I think that’s a dangerous narrative. Yes, the attention and scrutiny resulting from being a famous author can be a trigger, sure, but the illness itself was always underlying. I guess what I’m trying to say it that what should have been self-analysis came off as blame. Yes, I felt empathy with Alice, but how she talked about her own sadnesses and predicaments didn’t have me feeling a lot of sympathy.
I suppose what I’m saying is that Rooney seems to be biting the hand that feeds her and expecting no backlash from it. I know, I know, maybe my own thoughts in this post are proving her point, but I don’t think that means I as the reader don’t get to express them just because they were predicted. I don’t know — I’m confused, okay!
And listen, I know it is a particular issue of fame and your everyday person “doesn’t get it” and whatever, but no matter how many times I am told and realize this, it doesn’t change the fact that no, I don’t want to hear someone complain about their perfect, enviable life. It seems that a lot of people nowadays dealing with fame think that no one understands their unique struggles and want us desperately to see that.
At one point, Rooney writes, “if novelists wrote honestly about their own lives, no one would read novels”, and that’s right, I think. Well-made point. Especially because I think that’s exactly what Rooney has succeeded in doing, because it was the aspect of the novel I felt most strongly about. Throughout this story, Rooney seems to think that acknowledging truths and viewpoints like this do enough to counter the effect of her doing the very thing she criticizes. In life, this is absolutely understandable, but in writing, I think it is a cheap excuse to leave in bits that will, no matter what preemptive explanation or apologizing you do, will still absolutely be found annoying to a reader.
There are a lot of philosophical questions asked in this book, and a lot of them come off as quite ironic, if I’m being honest (which I am). I had a lot more to say, but quite frankly I have put off this post for a week now because I didn’t have the headspace to finish it. Let’s just move along.
My Verbatim Reading Notes
Enough of me trying to synthesize this garbage into something internet-ready — in keeping with the tradition of Spoilery Chats, here’re my unfiltered thoughts, verbatim. You will see that I’m a big fan of over-simplifying when I’m frustrated and jotting notes to myself. But listen, I’m not posting this stuff to look good, okay? I’m perfectly aware it needs some cleaning-up. I just don’t want to do it.
thinly veiled analysis of herself. talk about depression/mental illness yeah but liiiike talk abt biting the hand that feeds you. i realize this is maybe exactly what she means but ugh. like i get it but ur right, no one wants to hear it.
why should people be rich and famous when others are so poor quote etc was just like UGH. if ur money bothers u so bad why don’t u donate it idk
and YES the author must be linked to their work bc it is a business. there is profit. we shouldn’t blindly support. if u feel so strongly, publish anonymously.
a lot of it feels like a shaming lecture
her depiction of female sexuality is much better i think — unlike lisa taddeo
“shame culture” bit from alice is uncomfy. like letting bad things slide by bc “everyone’s done them”
reading the brothers karimazov ugh
arms like slight branches
uh the simon imagining her as a baby because he “always wanted a sister” are odd
though for all the things i complain about, i was still quite invested. at least in eileen’s?
i have a lot of thoughts and i haven’t quite figured out where i stand on this one, and maybe that’s actually a good sign. it means it has me thinking, and isn’t that the bigger point of literature rather than i liked it/i didn’t?
the scene with eileen listening to them downstairs from upstairs was exquisite
the end has redeemed itself
the mental health bit made me need fo journal. too personal to write about
wow the friendship is familiar
damn this has been the wildest few weeks for felix
oh gosh idk that i like the end. fuck i wish it had ended before that!!!! shoulda ended with eileen and alice hugging.
okay the tweet rant. like that’s not commentary on individuals or that she presumed to know you? it’s commentary on relationships in general? like that sounds shitty right.
it feels weird that i’m writing this as i read because rooney is literally calling me out. what if authors just don’t read it? if you trult believe the work and author are sweperate, then that’s kinda conflicting. but i think this is why authors shouldn’t read reviews.
oh geez not another book that ends in pregnancy. like great proof of the culmination of simon and eileen’s friendship. UH woah the political statements yikes. once again praise of women who choose to have children rather than people who abstain. criticizing women who don’t have children as “dictating what happens” or whatever like having kids isn’t prerequisite to having a right to a say about how we can make humankind better.
so many ups and downs w this
the epilogue thing came and i was like FUCK NO GID ITS RUINED
i always back down on my arguments or when i feel i’ve made someone mad. i try really hard to stand behind myself and i think i’ve learned to do it but it still makes me feel lonely
SHE SHOULD HAVE ENDED IT WITH ALICE AND EILEEN ON THE STAIRS. Because what a beautiful piece of writing that was. In fact, that scene alone nearly wiped out all the other complaints I had up until that point. And, as y’all know, I love a purposefully ambiguous ending. It was just so raw and gorgeous, I thought, wow, this is why Sally Rooney has her name. And then it was ruined.
What’s with the need to do a several-months-later kind of epilogue? Y’all. We need to quit doing that. In fact, I think my new favorite exercise is taking a book and chopping off the last chapter/epilogue just to see how much better it could have been with that kind of edit. Because they almost never work out, in my experience. I don’t care that Simon and Eileen are having a baby — in fact, the conversation here quickly turned to something sounding a lot like a shame narrative to me, and I vehemently hate that.
And listen, there’s nothing wrong with Eileen having a baby, but as a moment in this book, what does it do for the story other than strengthen the (false) idea that every woman’s life needs to culminate in starting a family? It was completely unnecessary and Rooney seemed to really tip her hand here in terms of her personal beliefs. It left a sour taste in my mouth, especially after the wonder that was that last chapter.
i realize that i’m probably reacting like this because these are ideas that I myself am grappling with — what does this mean that this book is a commercial success? That everyone is a little more thoughtful than I give them credit for? Or that everyone wants to feel that they did their due diligence when it comes to a lil philosophical thinking about life?
Wow, well this has been a hot mess. What did you think about this one?
Love as always,
CW: Mental illness, rape and sexual assault, abuse, self harm, eating disorders, suicide, pornography, pregancy/childbirth