This is my favorite of the three books she has written. Like Normal People, this one is a close examination of the interactions of people who in most cases have known each other a long time. The principal characters here are Alice, a 30-something writer who has had great success with her two books; Eileen, Alice’s long-time friend, barely makes enough money to live on editing for a literary journal; Felix, a man Alice met online and though their first date was unsuccessful, they spend time together; Simon, a man five years older than Eileen who was kind to her when she was 15 and they have been friends and sometimes more since then. While the interactions among all of them are absorbing, the element that I liked the most was something else.
Correspondence between the two women had each of them expounding on something they were thinking about. As she was in the local shop getting herself lunch, Alice found she was thinking about the contrast between the majority of the human population living in poverty and the shop that offers an unimaginable variety of food, carefully and expensively wrapped for her convenience. She says, “This is it? The culmination of all the labor in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels, and all the back-breaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations. All for this? This convenience shop?”
They write to each other about many aspects of beauty. Eileen writes to Alice saying, “My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976 when plastics became the most widespread material in existence….before the 1970s people wore durable clothes of wool and cotton, stored drinks in glass bottles, wrapped food produce in paper, and filled their houses with sturdy wooden furniture. Now a majority of objects in our visual environment are made of plastic, the ugliest substance on earth, a material which when dyed does not take on color but actually exudes color in an inimitably ugly way.”
Eileen wrote a second message about the collapse of civilization in the late Bronze Age after she delved more deeply than the Wikipedia page on the topic. Before the collapse rich and literate economies in the Eastern Mediterranean traded in luxury goods; after the collapse, trade in luxury goods ended and languages were lost. She wondered how many of the inhabitants actually enjoyed the luxuries of the time and speculated that thousands were impoverished for every one member of the elite and that those lives were unchanged by the collapse. Those people were the ancestors of herself and Alice; ultimately those periods of increased “civilization” for the elite will rise and fall while the majority people live as they always do.
Alice writes about the difference between the beauty of books and beauty in art and music; in the former she has desires about what should happen to characters while in the latter, beauty is accepted as is. Though I’m not sure my interpretation of this point is quite right, I think I have seen the beauty of literature in the same way I would see any other work of art, not dependent on the positive outcome for a character I care about.
Above is a taste of the topics the women write to each other which I found fun to listen to; sometimes interesting and insightful, sometimes fun, but not always sophisticated thinking. These came along with the developing interactions among the four characters over the course of a year or more. The book ends with a couple of chapters that were later, well into the pandemic time that included some significant developments that had occurred. Each of those chapters is an email, one by each of the women. As with my previous experience with Sally Rooney books, I enjoy dipping into her world, but am happy to return to my own.
Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021, 356 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.