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‘Beautiful World, Where Are You,’ Salley Rooney’s third deep dive into the complexity of relationships

Rooney uses her depiction of relationships to show why character development matters

Originally published November 9, 2021 by Alexa Terry, Staff Reporter

Cover of “Beautiful World, Where Are You” by Sally Rooney (Amazon)

Everybody is inclined to inflate their own personal lives to seem as if they take up the world. Whether a blooming relationship or a fraught friendship, these seemingly tiny parts of life are magnified to be all encompassing. 

Salley Rooney’s third novel expertly captures this feeling as she follows four friends Alice, Eileen, Felix, and Simon as they navigate their incredibly mundane lives and their constantly shifting relationship dynamics.

Rooney shines in the way she depicts the uncomfortable excitement of new relationships, she evokes this feeling with striking realism, giving the impression that she has crawled inside the reader’s brain and put their deepest thoughts and desires on paper. Rather than relying on tropes or exaggerated personality traits, Rooney crafts characters that are rational, emotional, selfish and sometimes ignorant. Every decision made by the characters feels, above all, immensely human. 

Early on in the book, one of the four main characters, Alice, goes on a date with another character named Felix. Their interactions are awkward and invoked a full body cringe that forced me to put the book down at times, but the feeling wasn’t entirely because I felt embarrassed for the characters. It was because I saw an uncomfortable familiarity in the way the characters talked to each other. 

They would fill awkward silences with pointless ramblings, bringing up anything to keep the conversation going. The characters were self-centered and constantly talked about themselves at the expense of the people around them. This interaction is one of many awkward conversations between characters. 

Rooney’s portrayal of the early stages of a relationship feels oddly comforting, it pushes the message that no one is special in their desire for connection, and they’re definitely not alone in their shortcomings on the matter.

The realism Rooney writes of her characters is nothing new for the author. In her previous two novels “Conversations with Friends,” and “Normal People,” she captures this same discomfort, but “Beautiful World” is set apart from these in the questions it poses on the deeper meaning of relationships. 

A large portion of the book depicts the emails sent between Alice and Eileen, lifelong friends who rely on each other for emotional support. In these emails, they converse on issues within their world, topics of climate change, class-consciousness, and mental illness, yet they always seem to circle back to the issues facing them in their relationships. 

Eileen may start her email with a concern about the state of the climate, but she will end up spending the majority of the message complaining about her fraught relationship with her sister, or rejoicing in her blooming romance with her childhood friend Simon. 

Through these interactions we see that for these characters, the world doesn’t revolve around issues of mankind but rather deeply personal hangups. They acknowledge that the world is crumbling around them, meanwhile they are stressing about a cryptic text they received from a love interest, something many teenagers can relate to. 

Though the characters in Beautiful World are consistently millennials, For high schoolers, this message rings true. relationships can be a blanket covering every other occurrence in their lives. There is no feeling more gleeful than going through life when a relationship is prospering, and similarly there is no feeling more isolating than watching the world continue while personally crumbling under the pressure of heartbreak. 

Rooney’s prioritization of personal affairs once again shows how she uses the relationships between her characters to illustrate the simplicity of mankind. How in the grand scheme of things, it may seem silly to stress about the intimate details of a relationship, but in the character’s quest to find beauty and love, the relationships in their lives are the only thing that really matter. 

Rooney’s writing doesn’t feature unique plots and twists that keep the reader on their toes, but she creates characters that they can’t help but become invested in. When the characters are sad, the readers are sad, when they are rejoicing, readers can’t help but rejoice with them.

 She thrives not when writing about the extraordinary, but when writing about the mundane aspects of human life with extraordinary stakes. Her characters find joy and contentment within themselves and the people they love. In short, Beautiful World, Where Are You, lets the characters see that the beautiful world they are searching for, is the one they find within themselves. 

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‘Beautiful World, Where Are You,’ Salley Rooney’s third deep dive into the complexity of relationships