The second book that I read on my holiday was another of my September pre-orders and one of the most anticipated novels of this year. I’ve only ever read Normal People but I really loved it. It was an absolute 5 star read, so I was looking forward to seeing what she came up with next. I always intended to read Conversations With Friends before I read Sally Rooney’s third book but just never got round to it. Still, I thought this sounded really interesting and I think Rooney is one of the most interesting and exciting writers around. Although, I’ve read a few Millennial writers, so it was always possible that my opinion of her had changed slightly.
After her first two novels were published, Sally Rooney was hailed as the voice of a generation, which is both a blessing and a curse. She has the ability to divide opinion in a way that so few writers can. On one end of the scale, there are the people who will automatically love every single word that she writes and won’t hear any criticism about her. However, there will also be the bunch of people who automatically criticise her without having read any of her books. It can’t be easy, so it’s no wonder that she addresses it in Beautiful World, Where Are You.
It won’t escape anyone’s attention that the character of Alice is suspiciously similar to Rooney herself. A young woman who was suddenly thrust into the limelight after the publication of her first book. A common theme of her novels are people like her but it’s so easy to see Alice as a stand-in for Rooney. Especially when whole chapters are dedicated to her describing the intense and uncomfortable aspects of being a famous author. You feel like the writer had a few personal feelings that she needed to vent here.
For much of the novel, Alice lives in isolation away from her friends Eileen and Simon. She is recovering from a mental health issue and is trying to get her life back together. This includes dating, which is how she meets Felix. Unlike the millionaire writer, Felix works an ordinary job in a factory and has a wide social circle. He’s also not the nicest of people and the pair initially don’t get along. Slowly, the two enter into a strange and awkward relationship. At the same time, Eileen is coming to terms with her long-time attraction to childhood friend Simon. The two have had feelings for each other for years but never admitted it to each other. Can they figure out where they stand with each other?
Of course, the all-important question is: has Sally Rooney done it again? Does Beautiful World, Where Are You stand up to her previous work? The short answer, unfortunately, is no. I know there are plenty of people who will blame any criticism of this book on the fact that the characters aren’t nice but that’s irrelevant. Felix is by far my favourite character and he’s often the worst of the bunch. One of Rooney’s major strengths is her ability to write complex and multidimensional characters. They’re not the most pleasant people but they’re real. The problem isn’t the characters. The problem is the lack of restraint.
To me, it feels as though Rooney was given quite a bit of free reign here and there just wasn’t enough editing going on. This is definitely a more mature book and her writing has moved on a bit since Normal People. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this novel is bloated and hard to read at times. There is such a small amount of character development and it all happens in the last 50 or so pages. We know that Rooney isn’t an author who favours complex plots. Meaning, if the characters are stagnant for most of the narrative, that leaves a lot of book with very little going on.
And it’s not as if there isn’t plenty of beautiful writing. She has such a wonderful way with words and the way she evokes James Joyce is really interesting. Rooney’s respect for Joyce is well-known and is certainly evident in the way this book is written. The way the book is narrated is, at times, classic Joyce and I think it works brilliantly. The problem is how slow and self-indulgent the novel is. How repetitive it is. And, yes, you can try and tell me that it’s intentional and is meant to tell me something about being a millennial in 2020. But, really, it doesn’t add anything to the narrative.
This very much feels like a Sally Rooney book and we all know how good Sally Rooney’s books are. There is a lot of great stuff here. For one thing, it’s funny. Funnier than I remember Normal People being. There are aspects that work better than her previous novels and others that are on par. Overall, I can’t say that this is as good as her last book. There are just too many things that didn’t work for me and I found it a real struggle to get to the end. The last 50 pages are great but getting to that point was difficult. It’s a dense narrative and I think it could have benefitted from some more editing. Maybe it needed to be just a little less Rooney? Especially as there are so many exciting writers popping up doing what she does but in a more effortless way. Maybe I’d be viewing this differently if I hadn’t read Naoise Dolan in between Normal People and BW,WAY?