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Book Review: Sally Rooney’s new novel paints a world full of angst and beauty

Sally Rooney, the author of "Beautiful World, Where Are You"
Kalpesh Lathigra
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Sally Rooney, the author of "Beautiful World, Where Are You"

When Irish author Sally Rooney made her literary debut with her 2017 novel, “Conversations With Friends,” the New York Times called her the “first great millennial novelist.”

She followed that up a year later with “Normal People,” which received widespread acclaim and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Entertainment Weekly ranked the book as the 10th best of the decade. It also inspired a wildly popular television series on Hulu.

Needless to say, Rooney’s third novel, out this month, faced great expectations. And “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” delivers in a big way.

The new novel is the story of two best friends, Alice and Eileen, who’ve known each other since their college days. Alice is a famous novelist recovering from an emotional breakdown, living in a large house on the coast of Ireland. Eileen works as an editorial assistant at a literary magazine in Dublin. Alice becomes involved with Felix, a warehouse worker, while Eileen navigates a complicated relationship with her teenage crush, Simon. The women email back and forth about their everyday anxieties and romantic lives, but also about deeper issues — religion, climate change, capitalism, aging.

The novel intertwines philosophical emails with narrative passages about Tinder dates, overbearing siblings, boring jobs and awkward social situations. There’s talk about the publishing industry, which hints at real-life venting from the author. And lots of sex, which Rooney describes in lush and lusty detail.

“What if these things just rise and recede naturally, like tides,” a character ponders, “while the meaning of life remains the same always — just to live and be with other people?”

Rooney manages, amid the cultural, economic and political upheaval in this pandemic-era novel, to paint a world that is truly beautiful.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.