Alice and Eileen think a lot about sex and friendship. Now thirty, they worry they’re obsessing about sex and friendship while civilisation crumbles.
In emails pinged between Dublin and County Mayo, they write articulately about the end of the world – inequity, greed, climate change, pollution, celebrity – and their lot in its midst – as women, as writers, as members of a specific class. Perhaps sex and friendship are the only things that matter since civilisation is ending and even as grown-ups, they are powerless to do much about it.
Alice made it rich and famous as a novelist, but success has only hollowed out her sense of self-worth. In Felix, a working-class lad who – at first - looks unlikely to treat her well, she seeks the proof of her worthlessness. Meanwhile Eileen struggles to find purpose or sustenance as an editor in a literary journal. Panicked by stasis, she’s not sure she deserves the love of childhood friend Simon.
In between their epistolary conversations are chapters in which Alice, Eileen, Felix and Simon’s actions are described with curious detachment. Rooney applies her immense gifts to charting their cerebral and physical connections without an ounce of ironic distance. In treating her characters’ concerns with the utmost seriousness, she imbues those concerns with deeper significance.
Could the rare and precious relationships we sustain with those who truly wish us well add-up to nothing less than the sum of the beauty in the world? And if so, how high the stakes in keeping them alive! Were these relationships to rupture so too would the safety net over the bottomless despair Alice and Eileen glimpse each time they are alone.
The scrutiny Rooney’s been under – just thirty, three acclaimed bestsellers in four years - would drive any sensible writer to reclusion, or even to stop publishing. This would be our immense loss. The work this most parallels, for me, is J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, not just for its thoughtful letters and the formative arguments therein, but for its preoccupation with crafting a meaningful identity in a flawed world where authentic beauty is fleeting and ego constantly threatens to swallow us whole.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux