Last week, I finished Sally Rooney’s third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You? I can’t say I loved it like I did Normal People — one of my favourite books of 2020 — but I still enjoyed this follow-up.
Rooney can transform even the most mundane of human interactions into engaging prose, whilst also making her characters feel like real people with frustrating but compelling flaws.
However, it wasn’t the relationships that most gripped me in this book, it was the emails protagonists Alice and Eileen exchanged every other chapter. Their emails are treated like the modern-day equivalent of letters that they are, and within them the two women discuss politics, religion, societal issues, among other things.
Whilst character interactions outside of these emails also pose interesting questions, I felt the real meat of the novel was in these emails.
So I decided to pull out 5 key points, with quotes, and share them here.
One of Alice’s earliest emails discusses both how ridiculous and toxic fame is:
People who intentionally become famous — I mean people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it — are, and I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill. The fact that we are exposed to these people everywhere in our culture, as if they are not only normal but attractive and enviable, indicates the extent of our disfiguring social disease. There is something wrong with them, and when we look at them and learn from them, something goes wrong with us.
I wholeheartedly agree with Alice here. And whilst Rooney makes it clear that she and Alice are not the same person, Rooney’s personal perspective on fame is unsurprisingly the same as her protagonist.
You can’t convince me the human brain is adequately equipped to handle the amount of attention fame attracts. Whenever stories of celebrities caught doing weird shit come out, I can’t decide if this is a prerequisite of being a celebrity or a consequence.
There is also a more sinister element to fame, which Alice notes in a later email: “why should anyone be rich and famous while other people live in desperate poverty?”
When so many have so little, there can be no moral justification for so few to have so much.
2. A happy life
In one of Eileen’s emails, she outlines what she envisions a happy life might look like (emphasis mine):
When I try to picture for myself what a happy life might look like, the picture hasn’t changed very much since I was a child — a house with flowers and trees around it, and a river nearby, and a room full of books, and someone there to love me, that’s all. Just to make a home there, and to care for my parents when they grow older. Never to move, never to board a plane again, just to live quietly and then be buried in the earth. What else is life for? But even that seems so beyond me that it’s like a dream, completely unrelated to anything in reality.
I don’t know about you, but the classic dream of purchasing your own home and building an adoring family is much harder to obtain now.
Global warming raises alarming questions about our planet’s survival, which for some is enough on its own to swear off bringing children into the world. There’s also the rise of the authoritarian Right and a manufactured culture war that threatens the rights and lives of marginalised people. But even if we ignored the climate crisis and political turmoil, the cost of living is skyrocketing, and homeownership has never been more unobtainable.
Stagnant wages, exploitative workplaces and mega-corporations monopolising also work together to crush people’s dreams. Whilst I’m no advocate for putting dream careers or wealth acquisition at the forefront of human ambition, even those desires appear disconnected from reality.
We need something new to strive for because the old goals moved out of reach for most of us.
3. Human survival
Our survival as a species really should be our collective goal. This is touched upon by Eileen in one of her emails (again, emphasis mine):
Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive — because we are so stupid about each other.
“Dying out” for any reason is a bleak thought, but I kind of like this angle of rooting for our survival due to how strongly we relate and connect to one another.
It’s so easy to spiral about all the terrible things human beings have done and are doing to the planet, the animals and other human beings. Both the news and social media most often highlight the very worst of humanity. To despair about our survival is the default way of being.
But it’s worth remembering that we’re not just surviving for survival’s sake, we’re worth saving. We absolutely do need to reorganise the distribution of the world’s resources and transition collectively to a sustainable economic model, and we can do that whilst also worrying about friendship, sex and everything else that makes us so delightfully human.
I’d recommend Sasha Fletcher’s piece for Joyland about writing about love while the world falls apart, which came to mind when writing this point. It also leads nicely into my next point…
4. The moral and political worth of writing
Alice has this to say about her writing:
I find my own work morally and politically worthless, and yet it’s what I do with my life, the only thing I want to do.
This struck at something deeply personal. Whilst what I’ve wanted to write is in permanent flux, there’s never been a time when writing wasn’t what I wanted to do. Even when I wanted to be a teacher as a kid, I most enjoyed writing made up lesson plans or marking my brother’s work.
But much like Alice, I’ve often wondered what purpose my writing is supposed to serve. With so many content creators competing for attention online, there’s a demand that everything you share must have value. And as someone who wishes they were more politically active, there’s an internal pressure to contribute.
This last quote is not taken from an email. It’s taken from a late chapter in the book and could potentially count as a spoiler, so consider this your SPOILER WARNING.
If you weren’t my friend I wouldn’t know who I was, [Eileen] said. Alice rested her face in Eileen’s arm, closing her eyes. No, she agreed. I wouldn’t know who I was either. And actually for a while I didn’t.
I think the best friendships I have now are with people who remind me of who I am whenever I lose myself. Friends make us see the best in ourselves when we’re caught up in seeing the worst.
Whenever I spend too long away from people I love, my focus switches to everything I’m not and most likely never will be. And when I’m reunited with the people I hold dearest, I rediscover the person I really am and everything I could be.