Beautiful World, Where Are You | Sally Rooney #IRLfiction

A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door.

Sally Rooney writes about the glorious and torturous intimacies that are a part of all the close relationships that we create for ourselves – best friends, lovers, siblings, colleagues. In Beautiful World, Where Are You Rooney continues this process, moving through the world of twenty-somethings to those now on the brink of becoming thirty-somethings.

But before I go into any details about this story, first let me get some generational stuff off my chest.

The naming of the generations has always confused me somewhat. In recent years I had got very confused about who exactly where the Millennials and whatever happened to Gen Y. And why did they like smashed avocado so much?

In 2018 I read Claire Madden’s book about Gen Z – Hello Gen Z: Engaging the Generation of Post-Millennials. Maddern is a social demographer and she provided a handy list of the gens and their (approximate) birth years. The main thing to know is that most of the gens have around a fifteen year period assigned to them. The start and end dates are often a bit blurry and those born either end can switch between the two as far as most marketing and advertising people are concerned. And this is, of course, the real reason the whole gen thing has become so big now – marketing and advertising.

  • Builders – pre 1945
  • Baby Boomers – 1946 to 1964
  • Gen X – 1965 to 1979
  • Gen Y (aka Millennials) – 1980 to 1994
  • Gen Z – 1995 to 2009
  • Gen Alpha – 2010 to 2024

I have seen other lists since that divide the Boomers into Boomers I and II (Boomers I – 1946 -1954 & Boomers II 1955 – 1964) which match the rough 15 years per generation better. The two generational experiences that seems to define you most are which generation parented you and at what time did your generation come of age. This information has been VERY useful for those in marketing, finance and advertising. It helps them to know which buttons to push to get a purchasing reaction from you. Somewhere in all of that is the boom in avocado sales!

For instance, the Baby Boomers were parented by Depression era parents and came of age in the 60’s. They gave birth to Gen Y, who came of age with the new millennium (hence their name change). Meanwhile Gen X (raised by the WWII generation) came of age just as the Cold War came to an end and the greed-is-good 80’s fell apart. Gen X-er’s gave birth to Gen Z just as 9/11 happened. Gen Z are coming of age right now.

Why all this interest in generations and Sally Rooney I hear you ask?

Sally Rooney and her books have been described as Millennial books, all about the Millennial experience. Being a Millennial has been hurled at Rooney as a criticism, yet it is also her special talent. Sally Rooney was born on the 20th February 1991 in Castlebar, County Mayo, Ireland (amazingly the VERY same day that I flew out of Sydney as a just-turned 23 year old for my one year adventure living, working and travelling in the UK and Europe!) which makes her very clearly a Millennial.

There is no doubt that her characters and their experiences of coming of age are also firmly embedded in the life and times of Millennials around the Western world right now. Rightly so. Every generation needs spokespersons to define and explore their shared experiences and to act as agents provocateur. Yet two of my colleagues, who are on the baby end of the Millennial gen have struggled with this book.

The reason may simply be the Zillennial phenomenon – a term some social demographers have given to those born at the end of Gen Y and the beginning of Gen Z (roughly 1994-1999). This small group that straddles the world of two generations (much like my baby sister, born in 1976, straddled Gen X and Gen Y) find that they do not quite fit in either of the bigger gens around them. When you are still young (early twenties) in particular, the difference between still being at uni or just finishing, as with my colleagues, compared to the older Millennials who are now getting married and have kids and mortgages is a VASTLY different experience. As you get older, this experiential gulf lessens.

It seems that part of the reason my younger colleagues didn’t like this book as much as Normal People is that they couldn’t relate to the career aspects of Beautiful World. They’re not there yet.

Whereas I could.

Looking back and remembering the angst you went through yourself is much easier and relatable, than trying to project forward into an experience that feels outside of or even alien to where you are at right now.

Thanks to Covid-19, my two young colleagues, who have just finished uni, have no idea what to do next. They have no idea how to get their careers started in this current world where everything has turned upside down. Even the word, career as we know it, seems like a foreign word to them. Obviously, not every Zillennial is like that. B24 and his GF are firmly on their way with careers and plans for the future, but they do seem to be the exceptions in their cohort, rather than the norm.

They also didn’t like the emails. I did.

The emails between Alice and Eileen reminded me of the free-ranging, intense, late-night D&M’s (as we called used to call them back in the 80’s and 90’s when I was coming of age) that I had with some of my friends. Politics, whether to have children or not, the environment, relationships, work, the meaning of life – the usual stuff – I couldn’t get enough of it. With some people. Alcohol was usually involved, but not always. The only difference is that Alice and Eileen are talking about the issues pertinent to right now – politics, whether to have children or not, the environment, relationships, work, the meaning of life and image.

At one point Eileen talks in her latest email about her break up with Aidan, after being together for four years, then seeing him in the street six months later,

Every subsequent hour since I saw him him has been worse than the last. Or is it just that the pain I feel right now is so intense that it transcends my ability to reconstruct the pain I felt at the time? Presumably, remembering suffering never feels as bad as present suffering…we can’t remember how much worse it was, because remembering is weaker than experiencing. Maybe that’s why middle-aged people always think their thoughts and feelings are more important than those of young people because they can only weakly remember the feelings of their youth while allowing their present experiences to dominate their life outlook.

So much to unpack in one paragraph!

Curiously this is a conversation (or something similar) that we have had with the boys in recent times. Yes, the pain of that (first) big break up in your twenties is devastating. We all had one of those, & at the time, we really thought it was going to break us. But it didn’t.

The first time you experience something difficult, especially something really painful, is tough and even traumatic. There is no denying that. You don’t forget it. It’s not about ‘weakly remembering‘ though. It’s just that since that heart-breaking first relationship bust up in your twenties, several more traumatic events have supplanted that pain and anguish. Second and third break-ups, the failure of a ten year marriage complete with children and assets, the loss of a job, the death of a parent, a best friend or a life threatening illness. It’s not that you forget as you get older, or that the memory weakens, it’s more that those painful times in one’s twenties are swamped or overwhelmed by succeeding pain.

We’re all human and we all get caught up in the life experience that we’re having right now, whatever age you are. Learning how to deal with the pain of break-ups as a teenager and twenty-something helps to prepare you for the losses and trauma that occur at future stages of life. That is the only advantage that age gives you – more experience at dealing with heartbreak.

So, did I like the book?

Yes, I did. I enjoyed the intensity and immediacy of the reading experience. I’m curious about Rooney’s interest in Marxism and class and Natalia Ginzberg. She also has a lot to say about the world of literary festivals and celebrity authors and how the attention takes you away from the thing you want to do most – write books.

Beautiful World hasn’t really stayed with me though, unlike other books read around the same time, some that I wasn’t so sure about, but still find myself thinking about (I’m looking at you, Colm Tóibin and The Magician – why are you still in my head?)

Rooney is an interesting writer. She is perceptive and thoughtful and fiercely intelligent. I like her style.

My hardcover edition of the book, came with a bonus short story, Concord 34 (first published in The Dublin Review, Summer 2016). It’s a rather disturbing, messed-up story about a twenty-something woman at a loose end, not knowing what to do with her life, who returns to her home town and has a fling with a teenager in his final year at school. They talk about Karl Marx and abortion. By the time I got to the end of it I felt like I had had more than enough of Millennial angst though.

Epigraph:

When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn’t matter much to me.

Natalia Ginzberg | My Vocation | trans. Dick Davis

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Title: Beautiful World, Where Are You?
Author: Sally Rooney
ISBN: 9780571371976
Imprint: Faber
Published: 7th September 2021
Format: Hardcover special edition featuring a short story and lovely endpapers.

10 thoughts on “Beautiful World, Where Are You | Sally Rooney #IRLfiction

  1. Thanks for the link.

    The discussion on generations is very interesting. I’m a Gen X-er born to Babyboomers — my dad was only 21 when I was born, my mum a year older — so I often wonder if that might have influenced my upbringing a bit. I certainly feel much younger than my age-related counterparts and have always tended to have friends that are a lot younger than me. Plus, I was one of those people who graduated at the height of the 1990s recession and really didn’t find a career path until my late 20s. I think it’s unusual to have a career “path” these days – it’s called a career “portfolio” now, meaning you can do a tonne of different jobs in different fields in your lifetime. It’s not great security-wise, but I like the idea that young people aren’t going to be tied down to a single career that they may not like. And in my experience, working with a lot of Millennials, I like their refreshing attitudes, largely free from racism, sexism and acutely aware of the environment. (There are downsides, too, but I think this comment is long enough and this probably isn’t the place to be negative!)

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    1. And just like B24 and his GF, you show that exceptions apply to every so-called generational rule!

      Portfolio building is a good word for what I see B24 doing, although we have been calling it stepping stones – each position leads to the next as he accumulates the skills he wants to acquire to get to his ultimate goal. But he is incredibly focussed and ambitious.

      I suspect I may be about to start on another generational jaunt. I do find this stuff weirdly fascinating.

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  2. Thanks for such a thoughtful and entertaining review. I’m glad to read that you liked this. Interesting about your younger colleagues but makes complete sense as to why they may not have related to it in the same way as Normal People. I’m thinking my daughter might feel the same way once she borrows my copy.

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    1. The two couples is BW are not as sympathetic or as likeable as Connell and Marianne, so that may have something to do with it as well. Connell and Marianne wore their damage on theirs sleeves; the BW couples have internalised their damage, making it harder to dig out. Although there were some gritty, disturbing scenes in NP the book still felt quite innocent somehow.

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  3. I’ve lost track of the generations, even with your helpful tables. My kids were born 1977-1981. I could scroll back up and see what gen that makes them, but I’d only forget again. But, boy, do I remember D&Ms. The oldest daughter, unmarried, has been taking us through them for 30 years now.

    I think Normal People is still my favourite Rooney, but I like that her protagonists are ageing with her. I’m pleased I raced out to buy Beautiful World and I’ll be racing out for no. 4.

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    1. Your kids are like my baby sister born in the cusp years of Gen X and Gen Y (maybe we should call them Xillennials?) I haven’t D&M’d in years – not sure when the last one was – possibly early on in my second time around relationship with Mr Books as we were reconnecting?

      And yes, NP is my favourite too, although we have been watching the TV series at the same time as I was reading BW. By the end it was definitely too much Millennial angst.
      I’ve been on a non-fiction binge ever since to cleanse my palate!

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  4. This does partially help explain why I didn’t care for Normal People and wasn’t interested enough to read Beautiful World. I suspected as a baby boomer, it was my lack of connection to the thoughts, challenges, concerns etc of the generation about which she writes.

    Now I have to ask: what are D&M’s ???

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