Critics agree that Rooney’s prose remains ‘sharp and discerning’ but fear she has become ‘self-conscious’ due to her newfound fame
Sally Rooney has released her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You?
The best-selling author behind Conversations with Friends and Normal People explores friendship and fame in her new book, which is published by Faber.
Much has been made of the pressure on Rooney to emulate the critically adored Normal People, which was adapted into a hit BBC series starring Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones last year.
Many of the reviews of Beautiful World, however, have commented that Rooney appears to have struggled with her newfound fame and that this is reflected in both the themes and quality of her writing.
In a three-star review for The Independent, critic Martin Chilton praised Rooney’s “sharp and discerning” observations about her fellow millennials, but said it was “hard to care” about her characters and their problems.
“Beautiful World, Where Are You is a stimulating, enjoyable read,” he wrote. “My main problem was that aside from rooting for the insecure, hypersensitive Eileen, I could not find it in my heart to care in the least about Alice, Felix or whiny Simon.”
A review in The Observer said the book was “far from Normal People 2” and that Beautiful World felt like her “most self-consciously awkward book to date”.
“Hectoringly ambivalent about her own pleasures, Rooney seems to be saying that what she has to offer as a writer isn’t enough, but that it’s also all there is,” wrote critic Anthony Cummins.
“Will the readers who love her care about any of this? Ultimately, it’s hard not to feel her greatest artistic challenge isn’t retooling the romcom for an era of political crisis, but the simpler, if no less tricky, task of just getting on with her work.”
The Evening Standard’s review made a similar point, agreeing that Rooney’s writing felt “self-conscious” and that “we can’t quite fall in love with this quartet, or indeed find them particularly interesting”.
“The email essays are convincing but they don’t feel convincingly embedded within the characters who write them,” the review added. “What’s more, there is very little drama or momentum, or the sort that sustained the relationship between Connell and Marianne, for instance.”
In a more positive review, The Guardian said fans of Rooney’s previous work “will relish the ache and uncertainty of her characters’ coming of age, her way with emotional difficulty and her brilliance in showing the barriers we put between ourselves and the love of others”.
“The last third of Beautiful World, Where Are You, when the four characters meet and connect, is a tour de force,” said critic Anne Enright. “The dialogue never falters, and the prose burns up the page. It takes some time to get these people in the same room, however, and that movement towards intimacy is purposely delayed by Rooney’s descriptive prose, which heats up slowly.”
Meanwhile, the i Paper called Beautiful World a “strange, imperfect book for strange, imperfect times”.
“However intentional, this cerebral quartet of characters didn’t move me to the extent Conversations With Friends’ Frances and Bobbi, or Normal People’s Marianne and Connell did,” critic Olivia Sudjic said. “Their back stories feel awkwardly rather than artfully compressed. Their bodies are idealised to the point of saintly incorporeality.”
She later added: “She remains one of our most talented authors, and thankfully she’s still writing but she can’t return to the prelapsarian time that made her previous books possible, observing the world while wholly unobserved by it.”
Beautiful World, Where Are You? is out now.