Sally Rooney's much-anticipated third novel is both about and informed by the perils of massive success

Sally Rooney, struggling with success. Picture: Getty Images
Sally Rooney, struggling with success. Picture: Getty Images
  • Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney. Faber, $29.99.

Whilst it might seem odd to feel sorry for a bestselling author at the very peak of her career, I have to admit that the odd pang of sympathy hit me while reading the latest book from Sally Rooney, author of the blockbuster success, Normal People. It's hard to write well with the weight of the world's expectations on you.

It's good that I was in a sympathetic frame of mind, because Beautiful World, Where Are You? is chock full of self-pity from the author, embodied in the character of Alice, who is also a best selling novelist at the peak of her career, struggling to overcome the pressures of success.

Alice moves from Dublin to a small coastal Irish town, and enters a casual romance with Felix, a rough-around-the-edges, working class bisexual man she meets on Tinder. Back in Dublin, her best friend Eileen is dragging herself through the final year of her 20s, pining over her longtime friend and part-time lover, Simon. Simon is a good five years older than Eileen (a fact that is treated like it's positively scandalous), which was more of an issue when they met when Eileen was 15, but should be irrelevant in adulthood.

Unable to allow themselves to be happy, Eileen and Simon sleep together, and then sabotage their chances at a happy relationship in what feels like a never-ending cycle. Meanwhile, Alice takes the stranger Felix to Rome with her for a book publicity trip, where they are mostly rude to each other.

Somehow, their stilted relationship forms into an ongoing romance, punctuated by Felix insulting Alice who in turn becomes brittle and cold, before they find their way back to each other via sex.

The novel culminates with Eileen and Simon visiting Alice in her new coastal home. Their trip instigates conflict, revelations and tears, but ultimately ends with both couples committing to each other and choosing happiness.

In case it isn't clear from my tone, I did not enjoy this book. Having read both of Rooney's previous novels, I was prepared to read about middle-class white characters in Ireland, who are preoccupied with their romantic relationships, sex, and their purpose in life.

But both Normal People and Conversations with Friends had complexity and depth within their pages, even when the banality of the character's inner lives became repetitive and tedious. There were difficult family relationships, and coming-of-age narratives that provided emotional fuel to drive the pace of the novels.

This book, in contrast, lags and stutters. The book is written in two interlocked streams. There is the prose narrative of Alice and Eileen's experiences, and there is an ongoing email exchange between the characters.

The former is engaging and demonstrates the author's talent as a writer, especially her command of dialogue. Although the writing does become laboured at some points, there are equally passages that show Rooney's command of her unique narrative style; the detached and impersonal, yet very engaging way she invites readers into the worlds of her characters and allows the scenes to slowly emerge rather than crowding the page with imagery.

However, the email exchanges between the two young women at the centre of the novel are slow, laborious and weighed down with intellectual wankery that derails the pace of the novel.

It seems like Rooney pays lip service to the critiques of the lack of diversity in her novels by always having a single character from a working class background (in this case Felix). And Felix is definitely the most interesting, well-painted character in this book. Every page with him on it is enthralling, which unfortunately casts the remaining characters in even poorer light, especially Simon, who is so two-dimensional he can barely stay on the page, and is mostly described as "polite" and "handsome".

Eileen and Alice are both so introspective that they have no grasp on each other's lives, which becomes the driver of conflict in their friendship. Despite their long email exchanges, it's hard to understand why they remain in each other's lives at all.

Rooney peppers her interrogations of fame and fortune as a writer throughout the novel, written through Alice's perspective, and shows that too much success can be a bad thing (which is also evidenced by the quality of this book).

Beautiful World, Where Are You? is not a bad book. It's just a very average one. Where there are writers building on the groundwork Rooney has done in creating a market for the detached, dysfunctional young female narrator and turning out books with scope and heart (read Diana Reid's Love and Virtue or Madaleine Watts The Inland Sea), this book fails to excite.

  • Zoya Patel is the author of No Country Woman: A Memoir of Not Belonging.
This story On the perils of massive success first appeared on The Canberra Times.