“Beautiful World, Where Are You”
A review of Sally Rooney’s new novel
Smitten by Sally Rooney’s previous novel, Normal People, I pressed it on all my friends. Here was a view of the young generation I knew when I was teaching in Ireland. And the book was authentically Irish, right down to Trinity students surviving on beans and toast and their allegiance to friends back home.
Beautiful World is the same, only more so. Now those star-crossed students are in their late twenties and early thirties, launched in tentative careers, confused about their romantic relationships. And even more than the Dublin locus of Normal People, the center of Beautiful World is Ireland’s West — specifically the not-so-tidy towns of Mayo. And if you have a passing acquaintance with the region, as you read the novel, you’ll feel you’re in some local pub looking out the rain-streaked windows at the sea.
The vital importance Rooney gives in this book to Connemara’s geography and everyday culture makes her different from the more worldly Claire Keegan, the last Irish writer of genius a half-generation ago. But when it comes to painting character and their interactions, both seem to have drunk from both St. Bridget’s Well and the stories of Ann Beattie.
That said, I have reservations with this novel that I didn’t have with the last one. So much of this new book is talk —as the four main characters grouse about themselves and their hopes, exchange emails and critiques of their relationships, weigh in on literature-these-days and world politics, et al. — that I was reminded of Nick Carroway’s complaint in The Great Gatsby that in college, for some reason, young people sought him out to make their most intimate confessions, and that the intimate confessions of undergraduates are a pretty uniform lot.
Even so, I liked the book well enough.