Once or twice before I have been foolish enough to confess that I think something about a book is objectively weak. Here I concede: this is a competent novel but personally I just don’t connect with the characters very much. Rooney’s women have a submissiveness to them that I don’t enjoy spending time around.
Reading Sally Rooney is a double-edged sword for me. How can I enjoy the writing but loathe the characters? Not loathe in a Lady Macbeth, Hannah Horvath, Walter White sort of way. Flawed but complex. Awful but compelling. I find Rooney’s characters annoying and uninteresting. They are obviously very intelligent and well-read but for me that’s outweighed by their self-important self-hatred. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy Beautiful World, Where Are You. It was entertaining enough and I’m a sucker for deadpan narration. Alice was sort of interesting – she is a writer struggling with fame and the value of art. I enjoy reading about the lives of writers (which Rooney and her characters would no doubt find pathetic. But here we are.)
I like the structure of the novel – it alternates the third person narrative chapters with wonderings about the endurance of civilisation and the tragedy of plastic in the form of email correspondence between Alice and Eileen, our heroines. Though they are written well, I think the emails go on for too long and wonder if some of the content might be more at home in a book of essays. Speculating on contemporary authorial intent will make an ass of you and me (mostly me) but I got the feeling that the writer just wanted to talk about these topics and the story took a back seat to that. It reminded me of Creative Writing short story assignments at university where some of us would run out of story and start philosophising about something to make up the word count.
There is also a chapter written in stream of consciousness which I think elevates the book; it was quite well done. But then it’s closely followed by a chapter full of verbless sentences which sound contrived and like they are trying to be profound, or blissful, or something, which I found disappointing (more undergraduate Creative Writing flashbacks).
The book is essentially about connecting, in friendship and romance. Unfortunately, the men in the novel – Alice and Eileen’s pairs – are too comfortable being domineering over the women, and although this is something that the ladies seek, the ick-factor scores high for me. This is obviously a parallel to Normal People, which I enjoyed less (again good writing, and again awful characters). Would I recommend Beautiful World, Where Are You? Who cares, it’s everywhere anyway. It’s good prose for the most part and the settings are written nicely, so it’s more a question of whether or not the reader wants to spend time with these particular people.