Content Warning: Mental Health, Depression, Self-Harm
The Balancing Act of Life
In many people’s experience, especially those discovering themselves in their 20s and 30s, life can seem lonely as you explore what it means to be human. While some delve into careers, others quell this loneliness by diving into the dating scene.
Alice and Eileen, two college best friends, do a bit of both, all while contemplating topics like politics, life, and self-worth. This is a (very) shortened summary of the plot of Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
What Is Actually Real?
“When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn’t matter much to me.” – Natalia Ginzburg, My Vocation (translated by Dick Davis)
The novel opens with this quote by Ginzburg on the subject of existentialism. Not only does Ginzburg toy with this realization that they are only a small part of this universe that they are in, but this also proves to be a tellingly appropriate lead-in to the book, considering one of the main characters (Alice Kelleher) is a famous writer exploring life’s biggest questions through conversations with her best friend and former college roommate, Eileen Lydon, not to mention the recurring, underlying question throughout the book of one’s place in the universe, in work, in dating, and in general, life.
Beautiful World, Where Are You opens with Alice meeting Felix, a date from Tinder, in a bar near Dublin. Alice is staying in an old house in a small village as she recovers from a mental break in New York. Her best friend, Eileen, an Editorial Assistant in Dublin, is similarly exploring the dating world by meeting Simon, a family friend, for coffee.
The book continues to explore the relationship between the two friends (Alice and Eileen) as they ride the dating rollercoaster through proclamations of love, jealousy, casual relationships, and more. As these two navigate their relationships with their on-again off-again romantic interests, they send emails to each other exploring deeper life topics, including mental health, the fear of success, and the current politics.
For example, in Chapter 6, Alice notes, “The unbearable thing is that when first inscribed, those markings meant something, to the people who wrote and read them, and then for thousands of years they meant nothing, nothing, nothing—because the link was broken, history had stopped. And then the twentieth century shook the watch and made history happen again.” This comment discusses the cyclicality of society, a key idea that stays with Alice throughout the book as she continually ponders whether the world will collapse at any time due to repeated patterns. Ironically, Alice is caught in her own cyclical pattern of believing she is not cared for or loved by others, even though this is proven untrue (and later told to her by Felix).
As the story progresses, Eileen and Alice’s relationship comes to a head, with both realizing they resent one another. Each feels as though they care for the other more. Their love interests help the women work through some of their issues, allowing Alice and Eileen to end their tension and become close, loving friends again. Ultimately, the book ends on a positive note 18 months later, with both couples in a relationship and Eileen content about her pregnancy.
Relatable to Its Core
While some reviews may claim this book is unrelatable, I find myself easily in the characters portrayed in the book. Their awkward mannerisms and reactions to events (like first dates) seem all too real in the 21st century. I’m sure many people have felt this same awkwardness upon meeting new individuals, especially in a romantic setting, like Alice. Perhaps those who claim the characters are too awkward never grew up as awkward individuals trying to find their way in the world.
What’s clear is this: Rooney has, in my opinion, dove into a concept that can be challenging to explore—humans trying to figure out their life purpose while navigating the ups and downs of life. While many writers explore this topic more theatrically, Rooney’s “awkward” characters seem to experience situations more realistically. Alice and Eileen each do their best to balance careers, loved ones, and romance, even through messy, unclear relationships with Felix and Simon.
In the current climate, which often feels overwhelming, it can be easy to focus on the negative (often done by Alice and Eileen in their email exchanges). This sense of impending doom explored through discussions of mental health and whether a child should be brought into the world, reinforces the relatability of the book.
How often do we wonder about the state of the world, especially after the pandemic (which even occurs toward the end of the book) turned everything on its side? While some may not be able to feel the same connection to the characters, others will feel as if the book is a little “too real” in the provided situations, relationships, situationships, and discussions. If nothing else, let this book be a reminder that beneath the surface level, each person is struggling with their own issues and insecurities, and with a bit of communication, most can be worked through with those we love.
SALLY ROONEY is an Irish author and screenwriter. She has published three novels: Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), and Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021). The first two were adapted into the television miniseries Normal People (2020) and Conversations with Friends (2022).
Rooney’s work has garnered critical acclaim and commercial success, and she is regarded as one of the foremost millennial writers. Time named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2022. She previously graduated from Trinity College, and her work has appeared in Granta, The Dublin Review, The White Review, The Stinging Fly, and the Winter Pages anthology. She lives in Dublin.