It’s nine on Sunday morning, and Eileen is going to mass with Simon. They’ve known each other for a very long time — since they were teenagers. They’ve shared a romantic interlude in Paris, only to part for years after. They’ve woken up in bed together this morning.
It’s both a notable and unexciting event, the sort that Eileen, nearing 30, clings to. The moment happens in her head more than in reality, in her heart. She watches this man she’s loved for some time now sing his praises to someone he’s never met, joined by the chorus of believers. She watches him pray. He kisses her on the cheek, and they say goodbye. In an email to her friend Alice, Eileen wonders, “Do I resent him for liking the concept of God more than he likes me?”
Alice is far from her friends in Dublin. She’s chosen to rent a house in the Irish countryside after a stint in a psychiatric hospital. She’s not working. She’s not writing a new novel, which is what she usually does in these private spaces far from the world. She has plenty of money, no car, no interest in resuming her old life in the city. Soon she meets a man named Felix and brings him along on a publicity tour in Rome for her last novel. They sleep in separate bedrooms for the first few nights.
In an email to Eileen, Alice asks, “But what would it be like to form a relationship with no preordained shape of any kind? Just to pour the water out and let it fall. I suppose it would take no shape, and run off in all directions.”
“Beautiful World, Where Are You,” the third novel by acclaimed Irish author Sally Rooney, is not “Normal People.” For Alice and Eileen, years have passed since the clarity and confusion of youthful romance. They believe themselves to be passed that stage of thrilling uncertainty. They’re in their late 20s; life should be happening by now, settled in some way, meaningful in some way. It’s not. Is the meaning still to come, or has the moment passed?
That touch of adolescent excitement, which Rooney played to perfection in “Normal People,” is used sparingly in “Beautiful World.” Alice and Eileen debate whether they should be thrilled by their lives, but they don’t often feel thrilled. In their email correspondence, which runs through the spine of the novel, they discuss looming topics in distant regard to themselves — the bleak hum of capitalism; the tepid reality of one’s career; the goes-both-ways struggle of friendship and love. These are not new topics for Rooney, but they’re renewed, reworked for characters settling into the dire prospect that life lasts longer than 20 or so years.
But the spirit of Rooney’s unintrusive narration is as stunning as ever: “Driving back that night, the crescent moon lopsided and golden like a lifted saucer of champagne, the top buttons of her blouse were undone, she put her hand inside, touching her breastbone, they were talking about children, she had never wanted any before, but lately she wondered…” It doesn’t matter which character this is — you know them at once. You know where they are, what they want, what they think they want.
Rooney is unmatched in her style, in the immersive draw of her prose. She doesn’t use quotation marks. She doesn’t stunt a lucid clause by binding it to a full sentence. In “Normal People,” this feeling of presence sometimes became a grotesque thing, a stunning intensity. How many conflicts could have been resolved if Marianne and Connell chose to speak their minds?
But in “Beautiful World,” we are less often challenged to criticize than to concord in silence. These lives are not so simple, so young, so defined by the question of whether to speak or not to speak. Simon and Eileen’s connection is not new, it’s known: “And their phone calls, the messages they wrote to one another, their jealousies, the years of looks, suppressed smiles, their dictionary of little touches … This much was in their eyes and passed between them.”
And here we are with another story about knowing someone, being known by someone. We find ourselves once more treading in that deep water, only now we’re further from the shore:
“I just want everything to be like it was, Eileen said. And for us to be young again and live near each other, and nothing to be different. Alice was smiling sadly. But if things are different, can we still be friends? she asked … Crescent moon hanging low over the dark water. Tide returning now with a faint repeating rush over the sand. Another place, another time.”
Readers will be initially disappointed to hear that Rooney hasn’t written another “Normal People.” She’s written something better: an honest account of the motion of life, the march forward, the dissolution of pride and self-assurance.
She’s written about the important things: “In the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for? Love always, Alice.”
Daily Arts Writer Julian Wray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.