"I've been thinking lately about Right-wing politics (haven't we all), and how it is that conservatism (the social force) came to be associated with rapacious market capitalism." This sentence, which can be found in an email exchange on page 16 of Beautiful World, Where Are You, is the first sign of trouble. I'm sorry to tell you that Sally Rooney has been listening to her critics.
The 30-year-old Irish writer has published two mega-successful novels, Conversations with Friends, and the Man Booker-longlisted, smash-hit TV show-spawning Normal People, which have, in four short years, made her one of the biggest-selling, most famous, and quite possibly best contemporary novelists. Yet this, her greedily anticipated third novel (advance copies have been selling for $200 on eBay) is a puzzle.
In some ways, it’s a familiarly Rooneyish one: set between Dublin and a small coastal town in north-west Ireland, it tells the story of famous novelist Alice, her disaffected best friend, Eileen, Eileen’s childhood sweetheart, Simon, compassionate but self-contained as an oyster, and Felix, a warehouse worker whom Alice meets on Tinder.
They are (almost) all educated, bookish, and in their various ways, unhappy. Alice is too professionally successful, the rest are not successful enough; Simon and Alice struggle to open up to others, Felix and Eileen are so open they find themselves constantly wounded. Plus, a climate crisis-induced existential dread hangs over them all, like a cloud of pollution.
Climate is one of a cluster of hot-button political issues dealt with largely through email exchanges between Alice and Eileen. Theoretically, it is a plausible and interesting stylistic development for someone who writes in the classic English novel tradition a contemporary twist on epistolary. But in reality, the emails are like a spine: structurally integral but knobbly and rigid. Their content slips between politics and dense reams of fact, so that they end up reading more like Wikipedia entries than fiction.
On some level, I think they are Rooney’s response to those critics who have chastised her for being both a person with strong political opinions (“self-described Marxist” reads every profile) and a writer of books that are, fundamentally, not very interested in politics. It is a stupid argument people can be more than one thing, as can novels and the proof of that is nowhere more apparent than in these emails.
It isn’t that they are uninteresting very few things that Rooney thinks or writes are. The problem is that they bear only tenuous relation to the business of the novel. They do nothing to advance the plot and weirdly little to flesh out the characters from whose keyboards they purport to spring.
It is also primarily in the emails that the other real irritation of the novel emerges. Rooney who tells interviewers how much she dislikes fame and how baffled she is that people assume her characters are self-portraits has created, in Alice, a novelist protagonist who hates fame and is baffled that people assume her characters are selfportraits.
Her emails to Eileen become a debate on the ethics of novel-writing itself: Alice says it’s indefensible (“Who can care, in short, what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species?”); Eileen maintains that one of the nice things about humanity is the way “we love and worry about the people we know”.
It’s an interesting debate for a classroom or the pub but in a novel, it grates. The arguments are not particularly original, nor, again, do they have any real pertinence to the plot they inhabit, and, in practice, inhibit. People read novels for all sorts of reasons, but most often to lose themselves in a world and a story.
Alice’s endless objections to the ethics of this are a tiresome distraction from its pleasures. It’s like trying to enjoy a song with someone intermittently tugging out your headphones to ask if you really think you should be listening to it at all. No one wants to read a book that seems to despise them.
It’s all the more frustrating because jammed between the emails is some of Rooney’s most beautiful writing. She made her name with two books that treat the mechanics of first love with sincerity and painstaking, sometimes painful, attention to detail; with her third, she has brought that sensibility to bear on a long love, stretching unspoken down many years, with even richer results.
Critics sometimes call her writing cold, in reference to her peculiarly flat style (patches of verblessness, which do away with subjectivity entirely, heighten that effect in this latest). But they miss the counterbalance (with Rooney, there always is one): those astonishing sentences about love bloody with warmth and sentiment that sometimes burst through the dryness like mountain springs.
In her third novel, such sentences have become entire chapters: one, set at a wedding, unspools around two people like a romcom montage shorn of Hollywood schmaltz. It ends: “They smiled at one another, saying nothing, and their questions were the same, am I the one you think about, when we made love were you happy, have I hurt you, do you love me, will you always.”
Rooney has also mastered the art of writing about sex. There’s a lot of it, including an entire chapter on the phone, which unfolds like a miniature play, and it is brilliantly done: gripping, steamy, unbearably sad.
While her previous works were largely uninterested in the physical world, by the end of this one the human interactions begin to spider outwards into the landscape. On the night that all the characters sleep under the same roof, the narrative perspective zooms out of the house to take in the “Summer morning. Cold clear water cupped in the palm of a hand.” There is a whiff of George Eliot’s spirituality in this delicate meshing of the human with the natural world.
But remember the emails. As I said, it is a puzzle of a novel: brilliant and flawed. Perhaps Rooney is suffering from difficult second album syndrome this is her third novel but it might as well be her second, given how quickly Normal People arrived on the heels of her debut (she told The New York Times last weekend that, at times, in the writing process, she felt like she'd never written a novel before). Perhaps, too, she has become caught in the trap of "too famous to edit".
If only someone with courage and a red pen had taken this book to task, it might have been her masterpiece. As it is, we are left waiting. But it will come. I have no doubt about that.
– The Daily Telegraph