For those not familiar with the writer Sally Rooney, she is most famous for her 2018 book Normal People, which was adapted into an award-winning Hulu show. Beyond television, the Irish author is also famous for her socially Marxist romances that spurn more traditional writing styles in favor of a montage-like approach, interspersing exposition with text messages and emails. Montage writing is both her virtue and her vice: Though integrating media with traditional prose can lend insights into the modern mind, Rooney’s approach is often less than seamless. Her dialogue lacks punctuation, and her blunt, trimmed-down narration can be jarring and even awkward. Nevertheless, the New York Times named Rooney the “first great millennial writer” for her creative means of exploring Marxist ideas in modern society.
Rooney’s most recent book, Beautiful World, Where Are You?, published in 2021, is particularly compelling because it is a marked deviation from Normal People and the rest of Rooney’s Marxist work. Whereas Normal People focuses on relational inequalities and social detachment between the central couple Marianne and Connell, Beautiful World seems to consider the consequences of detachment, with protagonists who want marriage, family and even religion.
Eileen and Simon, the romantic pair in the Beautiful World, ask similar questions to those that Marianne and Connell did in Normal People. Questions concerning issues like climate change and the working class are still important to Eileen and Simon, yet the way they choose to live differs from Rooney’s earlier protagonists. Normal People’s characters seem depressed by a malaise of meaninglessness. There is a whole lot of talk and stagnating inactivity. But Simon in Beautiful World is both a conscious critic of the inequalities and injustices of the world, and a brave participant in the very institutions that prior revolutionaries shunned. He faithfully attends Catholic mass and works for a climate emergency group in Paris, and he sees no conflict between the two. In an email to her friend, Eileen expresses that it is precisely because of faith that Simon can care for others and society at large. This faith in something higher, such as the Christian God, allows Simon to escape the nihilistic doldrums that inhibit the fight for truth, beauty and justice.
While Normal People focuses on the individual exerting relational independence, particularly in the case of Marianne, Beautiful World suggests that interdependence and vulnerability are actually what bring people meaning and belonging. In Normal People, Marianne struggles with her dependency upon Connell, and the novel ends vaguely with him leaving for New York without her. Conversely, at the end of Beautiful World, Eileen and Simon decide to have a baby. Eileen reflects, “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.” Yet it is precisely because Eileen and Simon choose to go on loving that there is even a reason to care at all for the more important things. Their mutual dependency makes them vulnerable to the systems of marriage and family that can be besotted with inequalities and abuses. This vulnerability, however, is what brings meaning, a quiet dependency upon the ones they love and a hope that through small, brave acts, the world too can be changed.