'Beautiful World, Where Are You' by Sally Rooney
This is not an easy writer, I can tell you that. And 'Beautiful World, Where Are You' is definitely not an easy book. Part of me thinks this is the one that should have been titled 'Conversations with Friends' as the book is, in part, an ongoing conversation over letters and email between best friends Alice and Eileen. Both thoughtful, talented and socially conscious young women who met in university, Alice and Eileen are struggling through their late twenties, trying to figure out who and what they're supposed to be.
Alice is a successful author, who finds it difficult to accept her own success, believing it to be somewhat of a sham. Not because she doubts her talent, but because she is in general skeptical of acclaim and "celebrity" and finds the whole thing to be kind of nonsensical and irrelevant in a world full of injustice, inequality and pain. After a breakdown, she retreats to the country where she meets Felix, a perfectly "normal" guy who is in some ways the antithesis of her rarefied life of the mind. Felix is unimpressed by her being famous and a writer, and both humbles and grounds her.
Eileen meanwhile is working in a dead-end (by her estimation anyway) job as an editorial assistant at a literary magazine. Despite being just as smart, and possibly as talented as Alice, she shuns every opportunity to "advance" in the middle-class aspirational sense of the word. Instead, she is seeking out a deeper connection with another human being, pining over a breakup after three-year relationship, and doing a dance of indecision with her other close friend, Simon, whom she has loved since she was fifteen-years-old.
Through their letters and notes to each other, Alice and Eileen debate big existential questions like the nature of art, and religion, but also share stories about hooking up on Tinder, terrible parties and their ongoing frustration with their respective families and their own mental health. They are representative of adults today in many ways-constantly pressured to remain engaged with the world (made so much smaller because of social media and the internet) while also feeling internal pressure to look inward and begin to know themselves and understand their own hearts.
I hear the criticism of this novel, and I understand it. I think Sally Rooney is, undoubtedly not for everyone. Her characters are navel-gazers, thinkers, self-obsessed intellectuals with very little ability to understand each other's emotions let alone their own. That can be a frustrating reading experience for people who favor action over thought in their books, but for me, this is the good stuff. I love this author's work. I look forward to more of it. I'm glad it took me a while to get to this one, because hopefully that means the next one is just around the corner.
My rating: ⭑⭑⭑⭑