“It’s not you, it’s me” – Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

“A lot of press attention surrounded the publication, mostly positive at first, and then some negative pieces reacting to the fawning positivity of the initial coverage.”

IMG_2022-5-29-192743Sally Rooney’s third novel is finally with us, after months of excitement on Twitter and the like, with queues of readers stretching around the block in their hurry to pick up one of the blue (or yellow) books. We held off asking for a review copy when review copies started circulating and then, by the time we asked, it was too late and (I can only imagine your horror as you read this, dear reader) we were forced to buy a copy. I know. The ignominy.

To begin with, then. We liked Normal People enough to go out and buy Conversations with Friends and, after reading Conversations…, we kind of sort of felt they were really both the same book. Beautiful World, Where Are You (insert our annoyance at the lack of a question mark here), in some senses, changes things up a bit. Where Rooney’s first two books felt like novels (because I knew nothing about Rooney and took them as I found them), Beautiful World, Where Are You feels more like autofiction (or that particular skewed brand of autofiction seen in books like Assymmetry, where Lisa Halliday writes about a character’s affair with a famous novelist having had an affair with a famous novelist in real life but denies that the novel about the character’s affair with a famous novelist has anything to do with her real-life affair with a famous novelist).

Like Conversations with Friends and Normal People, which concerned relationships between young men and young women (or young women and slightly older men), Beautiful World, Where Are You concerns relationships between two women and two men. One of the couples have been friends for forever. One of the couples are relatively new. In fact, they go on their first date at the start of the book (not that they would probably call it a date, that being the kind of word that, I don’t know, boomers would use or something). For the most part, the novel follows the back and forth of each couple, as they get along, as they fall out, as they discover unlikeable things about each other (he watches porn, she is a bit superior) before – well, you know how rom coms mostly resolve themselves eh?

One of the women (Alice) is a celebrated novelist living by herself. There is a fair amount of chat about what it is like being a celebrated novelist (mostly, it should be said, by other people, in social situations, which Alice mostly ducks or tries to ignore) and also a good bit of jetting off to Rome and London as you’d expect from a Sally Rooney novel – everyone is comfortable, even if they say they’re only earning £20,000 a year, no one really expresses any real sense of the world being that hard a place to live in – beyond emails between Alice and her friend Eileen (the other half of the other couple). A la:

“Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world is ending? After that there was no chance for the planet, and no chance for us.”

There’s an odd little bit of cake and eating that goes on with Alice bemoaning the state of contemporary fiction and then admitting she’s the worst culprit. And (at least as far as this reader was concerned) by the time we get to the last few chapters, some of the will they / won’t they is eaten up with a sense of get the fuck on with it. We were also struck, given that the book has sold forty-some-thousand copies in a handful of days with a thought: given that the last Harry Potter book, which came out in 2007, was the last high profile book to witness the kinds of scenes accorded to Beatlemania, is the Sally Rooney phenomena in part down to a lot of Harry Potter fans who have now grown up wishing they could see another kind of fairytale, one in which terrible political decisions and apocalyptic climate chaos goes on in the background of social gatherings where handsome people rub shoulders, smoke pot and worry too much about whether such-and-such likes them as much as they are in turn liked?

It’s not terrible, by any means. Parts of it, as you’d expect, are enormously readable. Some of the chat is amusing. Some of the thoughts on the state of the world are captivating. But if you were to ask me to explain why people are queuing up to get this rather than, say, the new Colson Whitehead book, I’m not sure I can tell you. Reading Beautiful World, Where Are You is a little bit like attending a comedy show in which a comedian does observational comedy and people are laughing and nudging each other and saying, I do that too. It feels like an exercise in recognition. I don’t feel the same frisson of excitement I got when I read, say, Zadie Smith’s third book. But then I’m not a fan of auto fiction in almost any form. In other words, it’s a classic “it’s not you, it’s me.”

Any Cop?: Less than we hoped for but we’re sure that a great many people will, rather puzzlingly, have their proverbial socks knocked off by it.

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