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Sally Rooney, who has a master’s degree in American literature, is surely aware of John Updike’s famous remark that “celebrity is a mask that eats into the face”. It was the quotable morsel from an essay about the creative obstacles for writers who suddenly become “aware of being ‘somebody’, to be watched and listened to with extra interest”.
Rooney is now a major literary “somebody”. Her acclaimed 2018 novel Normal People sold more than a million copies, and the BBC adaptation, starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, was an Emmy-nominated triumph. The television version of her debut novel Conversations with Friends is in production. It’s no surprise that her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, comes with a huge buzz.
Alice Kelleher, one of the main characters, is a 29-year-old wunderkind novelist who has moved to a west Ireland coastal town after a breakdown in New York. Her status as a celebrity author is part of why she describes her life as “difficult”, and the psychological price of success is a theme of Rooney’s novel. There are three protagonists besides Alice: Felix, her taciturn lover, who works in a shipping warehouse; Eileen, her oldest friend, who has suffered from recurrent depressive episodes and is getting over a break-up; and Simon, a parliamentary adviser whom Alice describes as so attractive, “it’s actually warped his sense of self”. There is also a lot of fun in Eileen’s wonderfully passive-aggressive relationship with her sister Lola.
Rooney writes sharply and discerningly about her fellow millennials. The conversations about the rental market, Netflix, internet porn, ghosting, sexual fluidity and “worst break-ups” will surely strike a chord with those youngsters who think and talk like her characters. Her particular quartet sit around discussing “what happened to my life” as they hit 30, the age Rooney reached in February (if they think it’s bad at 30, just wait until they are nearly double that!).
However, Beautiful World, Where Are You is surely not aimed at the olds, and the inclusion of Eileen’s confession that she “broke down in tears because I couldn’t answer any of the starter questions on University Challenge” seems a sly way to poke any passing boomer into an instant snort of derision.
Relationships are the core of the plot and Rooney is a practised hand at writing sex scenes. As with Normal People, there is enough action under the sheets – sex, phone sex, fingering – to steam up the (inevitable) future television dramatisation.
The book, which takes its title from a poem by Friedrich Schiller, features lengthy philosophical emails between Alice and Eileen, an editor at a Dublin literary magazine, in which they discuss heavyweight topics such as Enlightenment thinkers, what constitutes absolute morality and the role of the contemporary novel in a world facing collapse. The intellectual ping-pong is better than it sounds – and a debate about whether it’s right to have children when we are standing in the “last lighted room” before the end of civilisation seems sadly and acutely relevant. The emails form part of a minimalist-style novel that has interesting variations in perspective, including narration from a third-person omniscient point of view.
It’s the occasional narrator who jokes about how gushing reviews of Alice’s first two books were followed by “negative pieces reacting to the fawning positivity of the initial coverage”. There’s no disarming pre-emptive strike needed here, though, because Beautiful World, Where Are You is a stimulating, enjoyable read. My main problem was that aside from rooting for the insecure, hypersensitive Eileen, I could not find it in my heart to care in the least about Alice, Felix or whiny Simon.
‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ by Sally Rooney is published by Faber on 7 September, £16.99, Amazon.co.uk