ReRead Review: Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney (2024)

Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Overall: 5

This is going to be an unconventional review because this is not only a re-review but a re-review of a re-review. I first read the book shortly after it was published in 2021 when I was 18. Then, I read it again when I re-read all the Sally Rooney books in 2022 for an English paper. Somewhat famously, this paper and re-reading the books caused a seismic shift in how I viewed Rooney's writing for the better. But, apparently, my 19 year old self wasn't particularly impressed with Beautiful World Where Are You, either, since the first re-review moved my estimation of the book from a 3 star to a 3.5 star. 

Now, we've made a massive leap from calling the book mediocre to it being among one of my favorites as I near 21 and my college graduation. Perhaps it makes sense that I've slowly grown into Rooney's novels, first understanding her college novels in a new light and taking longer for this late twenties story to really hit. Something about that re-read, even though I didn't give it a glowing review, left a fondness in my mind that made me crave a re-read over the President's Day long weekend. Clearly, I liked the book more than I conveyed in the rating from the number of old underlines I found in my copy. It was fun to add a new layer of highlights to the pages. 

Fresh Thoughts: 

What struck me on this read is the fascinating use of structure and distance in the novel. I probably like it more for being more of an adult and more concerned with adult matters, but I also appreciate it increasingly as a writer now. Particularly, I picked up on interesting structural layers and authorial choices that I hadn't noticed before. Recently, in my creative writing class, we had a long conversation about point of view and distance. In so many of the novels I read, there is very little distance between the main character and the reader, even in third person. We know their most intimate thoughts and their very particular world view from inside their brain. I love being one with the character, and it's an easy trick to get the reader to identify with and care for the character. 

Rooney doesn't give us this narrative intimacy off the bat. Instead, she goes for extreme distance with her third person narrator. The voice of the narrator is so far away that they feel like another person in the room who is confined by their own eyes are ears. There are lines that are missed because they're whispered between two characters inaudibly. We don't get anyone's intimate thoughts in a scene. Instead, there's what they say out loud (famously without any quotation marks and in chunky paragraphs that aren't defined by the speaker) and the physical moves they make or subtle facial expression shifts that convey the sincerity of a statement or a private reaction to something another character says. We build up who these people are as outside observers, and yet, they still become fantastically rich and detailed and worth caring for. There's actually a real beauty in having to watch the character's interactions like a play and intuit the intentions. 

This possibly works so effectively because we get intimate moments deep inside their heads as well. Between the scenes of characters living their life and interacting are emails that Alice and Eileen send back and forth. This helps develop Eileen and Alice's friendship even as they live very different, separate lives, and it gives us space to hear random, rambley, thoughtful musings on life and big questions and small questions. I particularly love these because I send paragraphs back and forth with friends on messaging platforms. I even exchange lengthy emails with my Granda. If you want to talk to me, send me a letter over the internet. So I deeply identify with this means of relationship maintenance as it's my preferred mode of communication. 

That means we get these very distant, far away observer narrating the scenes and then get plunged deeply into Eileen and Alice's heads offering a sharp contrast that only drew me in further to the story. I appreciated the two styles equally, and wanting to unpack what happened in the scene through Alice or Eileen's heads in the following email kept the momentum running. Not getting these thoughts and feelings spelled out in the moment allowed room as a reader to intuit what was happening, and it also made these scenes move fast before slowing down in the reflect afterwards. In that way, the structure mimics life. The moments happen quickly, and we spend weeks unpacking them afterwards. We open watching Alice and Felix meet in the bar, fall into Alice's first email to Eileen, and then we see Eileen's life unspool right after. 

This structure holds until around page 250 where we reach the first scene that the novel has been building up to – Eileen's sister's wedding. Though this chapter isn't particularly long or consequential feeling in its content, it does break the rules the book has established. In this chapter, and pretty much only this chapter, we hear their thoughts and relive memories that bind them together. This places extra weight on this chapter as a turning point before we tumble into the biggest event the book has led to as Simon and Eileen go to visit Alice and Felix by the sea. 

From this point forward, the structure is broken, and with that, the occasional thought is very rarely allowed into scenes, usually only small and offhanded. There's no emails that divide the scenes because they're all finally united. In a book where the shifts that happen are small and subtle and based on personal, quiet, emotional stakes, this changing tenor is incredibly important to announce "this is the climax," everything is finally unraveling. 

It's telling, though, that the novel ends with two more emails exchanged eighteen months later by Alice and Eileen, finally unpacking that stay together and revealing to the reader how the challenges from their trip were navigated longterm. The emails are a fitting way to create an epilogue without being too heavy handed, and they offer a sincere dose of hope to end the novel. 

I appreciate the relationships portrayed here even more now too. These are compelling romantic entanglements, but they largely lack the traditional tenants of what's considered romantic. No one is being swept off their feet. These are romantic relationships that develop quietly and with stops and starts and endure through truly understanding one another deep down, even the dark parts or the gross parts or the regrets. Everything is put out on the table. No one is a perfect person. It just feels real and possible. And I don't find that modeled enough on the page, so I appreciate the way both romantic relationships featured unfold here. Also, the friendships and the consequences of those are given equal weight to the romances and really balance the story.

I know I didn't love the last chapter the last time I read it, and I felt a sense of dread remembering this last twist, but this time, it didn't bother me so much. It didn't feel like a betrayal of potential but fitting for the character and where she ended up. I also realized, in the process of reading this book, that I'm an Alice through and through for better or worse. 

More on This Author:

original Beautiful World Where Are You review

re-review: Beautiful World Where Are You

defining the Sally Rooney novel and growing up

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

Conversations on Love review

Ellipses review

7 Year Anniversary Ramble

The Girls review


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