54 pages 1 hour read

Sally Rooney

Beautiful World, Where Are You

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Sally Rooney has received much acclaim for her work, including Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), and Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021), both by way of literary awards and her unofficial label as the leading voice of the millennial generation.

Beautiful World, Where Are You chronicles the daily lives of four friends as they contemplate abstract philosophy and deal with the drudgery of existence while living in a collapsing civilization. Through all the communication and miscommunication amongst them, the friends find glimpses of a “beautiful world” around them by prioritizing a personalized, emotional, aesthetic life oriented around human love and friendship. Rooney’s novels—including this one—discuss themes of interpersonal friendships, sexuality, Irish literature, politics, Marxism, and feminism, which are very similar to the themes that her fictional author, Alice, also writes about. She uses this character to reflect contemporary criticism back upon her own critics in a subtle disapproval of obsessing over her literary celebrity.

Plot Summary

The narrative alternates between the lives of best friends Alice and Eileen and is interspersed with the letters they send each other.

Twenty-nine-year-old Alice Kelleher is a rich and famous novelist staying in a rectory in the Irish countryside after recovering from a mental health crisis. As the novel opens, she is meeting a man, Felix, in a bar for their first date. Very unlike the wealthy intellectual Alice, Felix is a down-to-earth warehouse worker. She takes him back to the rectory to show him around, but their rapport is awkward, and he leaves.

Alice writes to her old college roommate, Eileen Lydon, a 29-year editorial assistant eking out a meager living in Dublin; as is characteristic of their correspondence, the letter sprawls over many philosophical topics. Alice details the dreary cityscape, ponders far-right politics, and laments the grave environmental toll of a relentlessly consumerist society. She writes that she wants Eileen to visit her.

Eileen meets her friend Simon in a café. Later at home, she reminisces about her failed relationships. Years ago, she and Simon had sex, but nothing came of it. Now she feels alone, while her sister, Lola, prepares for her wedding. Eileen writes to Alice: Her letter has apocalyptic overtones as she muses over their doomed civilization’s loss of historical identity. She writes that she feels like an unloved failure.

Alice and Felix attend a party, where partygoers take interest in Alice as a novelist—but Felix seems irritated at her celebrity. Later, Alice confides to Felix that she was recently in inpatient psychiatric care. He commiserates, admitting he’s also experienced depression. Alice invites him on her work trip to Rome. Alice writes to Eileen: She is conflicted about her profession as a novelist and disdains the assumptions that readers must make about her. She tells Eileen she’s going to Rome with Felix.

Late at night, Eileen phones Simon and learns that he’s dabbling in nonexclusive relationships. The conversation turns flirtatious, and eventually they both masturbate while Eileen describes a sexual fantasy; they finish and hang up. Eileen writes to Alice: She confides that she feels a profound ennui and that she believes humanity is illiterate to the language of historical consciousness. She mentions Simon and asks about Felix. She wants to see Alice.

Alice and Felix arrive in Rome. They visit a literary festival, and each of them feels preoccupied with how the other regards the relationship. Alice writes to Eileen: She says that her relationship with Felix seems sexual, though they haven’t had sex. Humanity, she says, has lost its aesthetic intuition. Even as a novelist, she speculates that the novel is a futile and disingenuous artform.

Eileen receives an abusive text message from her sister, Lola, deriding Eileen’s financial deprivation. She meets friends at a bar but is bothered by their naïvely mistaken assumptions that she is well-off, so she leaves for Simon’s apartment, where the two have sex. When she tells him she loves him, he’s noncommittal. She accompanies him to Sunday Mass before leaving again. Eileen writes to Alice: She mentions sleeping with Simon and admits that she might resent his religious devotion because it could mean that he loves God more than he loves her.

Alice has Felix at her place to fix a broken shower, but she catches a glimpse of his phone screen and sees that he was searching the internet for porn. They argue about it, and Felix calls her self-righteous, but they reconcile. Later that night, they bicker some more before finally having sex. Neither is quite sure what it means. Alice writes to Eileen: She is happy to hear that Eileen slept with Simon. Simon’s Catholicism makes Alice ponder the latent eroticism in Christianity. She also mentions she had sex with Felix.

Eileen visits Simon at his apartment, and they have sex again. She tries to get Simon to say that he loves her, but he remains evasive. Eileen writes to Alice: She mentions an old personal project in which she tried to capture life’s beautiful moments in writing. She admits that she sees beauty less often these days.

Exchanging text messages, Alice asks Felix why she hasn’t seen him lately; he replies that she doesn’t care about him anyway. Alice argues that she does, and she invites him over. He spends the night. Alice writes to Eileen: She’s now writing from Paris, where she’s traveled to receive an award. At the Musée d’Orsay, the profusion of art is overwhelming.

At a party, Eileen sees Simon indulging flirtatious women. When she leaves upset, Simon follows her and defensively says he doesn’t understand her. She gets home and she sobs before going to sleep. Eileen writes to Alice: She talks at length about culture and aesthetic experience, but she closes the letter by saying all she really wants is to be loved.

Felix suggests to Alice that her job is a joke and that her friends only stick around her because she’s rich. Alice is stunned, though Felix isn’t being cruel so much as unfiltered. He apologizes. Alice writes to Eileen: She ruminates on the nature of reading fiction, comparing it to an almost religious experience involving selfless love.

On the morning of Lola’s wedding at the church, Eileen reminisces about her times with Simon years ago. When the wedding party arrives, Eileen and Simon lock eyes; the gaze is charged with many long-unspoken emotions. Eileen writes to Alice: She and Simon are coming to visit Alice.

Eileen and Simon visit Alice, and Felix meets both of them. The four friends visit the beach and then a bar. Later, as Eileen and Simon have sex again, Eileen asks if she’s special to him, and he says yes—but she still feels doubtful. She fears they will break up and their friendship will wither.

Later, as the four friends are together, Felix alludes to Alice possibly purchasing the rectory, and Eileen inwardly panics, knowing Alice may be moving away permanently. Simon tries to comfort Eileen and finally tells her that he wants to be with her. Alice and Eileen eventually get into an argument about different aspects of their friendship, but they reconcile and embrace when Eileen confesses that she’s afraid of losing Alice.

Over a year after this summer visit, Alice and Eileen write to one another: They are now amidst the COVID pandemic. Alice shares that her mental health is still worn thin, but she’s grateful for her life and might believe in God. Eileen is expecting a baby with Simon. The world, she feels, is once again alive with possibilities. 

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