I watched ‘Normal People’ and loved it but hadn’t read any of Sally Rooney’s work until just recently. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I found the opening scene of ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ to be a perfect short story in spare, direct language that made me immediately interested in the characters meeting, Alice and Felix. Is this how young, contemporary Irish talk? How they meet each other and interact?
The next chapter introduced the device of emails between Alice and Eileen and I was, at first, not so engaged by them. Their worlds and thoughts weren’t clearly drawn for me, a writer and an editor, both with a heavy load of angst. But as the book progressed, I loved seeing how the same events were described in third person, and then in the emails, the shifting perspectives of the novel’s heroes. And by the end, as I also saw them as a device for the author to share her thoughts on the state of the world, with comments on fame, mental health and capitalism: I thought, why not?
Not a lot happens in the book, really. And yet, the book moves along swiftly. It’s as if Rooney has pegged my attention span, much, much shorter than it used to be, and I enjoyed the relatively short scenes and missives. The highlight for me was in the emotional climax, where the characters argue and talk at each other and lay blame in a way I found particularly well done: they didn’t necessarily make logical sense in their speech nor spoke clearly or directly. But they made emotional sense. They felt to me like the real way we communicate with and misunderstand each other and fight and forgive; not the idealised, simplified version.
Felix was my favourite character. I found the contrast between him and Alice, Simon and Eileen interesting. He was not as political or intellectual as the others, not as interested in questions of morality. But he had a curious mind and the Irish gift of the gab and Rooney made him the catalyst for the climax, a stirrer. And I liked how his and Alice’s relationship developed. In contrast with the terribly written romances in André Aciman’s ‘Find Me’ where each character narcissistically falls in love with another version of themself, here is a nice portrayal of all the ways we can fall for people who are different from us.