The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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In This Edition of
The BookBrowse Review

Highlighting indicates debut books

Editor's Introduction
Reviews
Hardcovers Paperbacks
First Impressions
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Recommended for Book Clubs
Book Discussions

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Literary Fiction


Historical Fiction


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Biography/Memoir


History, Current Affairs and Religion


Science, Health and the Environment


Travel & Adventure


Young Adults

Literary Fiction

  • Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (rated 4/5)

Thrillers


Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Speculative, Alt. History


Extras
  • Blog:
    6 Novels for Book Clubs That Reflect on Reproductive Rights
  • Wordplay:
    T O Thing W H T F I F I
  • Book Giveaway:
    Win a signed copy of Where the Crawdads Sing
Beautiful World, Where Are You
Beautiful World, Where Are You
by Sally Rooney

Paperback (7 Jun 2022), 368 pages.
Publisher: Picador
ISBN-13: 9781250859044
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Beautiful World, Where Are You is a new novel by Sally Rooney, the bestselling author of Normal People and Conversations with Friends.

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he'd like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up, and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.

Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young―but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

The publisher is offering a free download of the first chapter on their website (link opens in new window)

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. What is it like to read a novel about a celebrity novelist who debates the role of novelists and their craft? How would you respond to the question Eileen raises at the beginning of chapter 12: "Do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life?" Do you agree with Alice's definition of a great book (offered in chapter 22) as a work that engages the reader's sympathies?
  2. As you watched Alice and Felix on their first date, what were your initial impressions of them? What did you predict for their relationship?
  3. How does technology shape the way the characters communicate with each other? How does Rooney describe technology?
  4. How does Alice's interest in the historical Jesus differ from Simon's interest in church doctrine? To what extent is religion a cultural anchor for them both? Does Christianity influence their sense of morality?
  5. Over the course of the novel, what transformations take place in the way both couples experience sex, eroticism, and love? What enables these two relationships to persist, despite frequent doubts and deep vulnerabilities? How do differences in age and wealth affect their power dynamics?
  6. What does the novel help us understand about the nature of friendship? How did you react to the friction between Alice and Eileen that only intensifies when they see each other face-to-face again? What came to mind while you were reading about Eileen's remorse in chapter 28? Would you have sought a reconciliation?
  7. The novel's point of view shifts from the third person to the first-person email exchanges between Alice and Eileen. How did you understand the third-person narration? What is the effect of these shifting perspectives? Are Eileen and Alice honest with each other, and with themselves?
  8. In chapter 27, we learn that Eileen's take-home pay is less than Felix's. His job is repetitive and physically dangerous, while Eileen's work is physically comfortable but precarious in other ways. How do their class backgrounds compare? How does the novel approach labor, wealth, and success?
  9. How do Lola and Damian contrast with their siblings? How does our early family life color who we become—and who we are determined not to become?
  10. What do the characters discover about solitude versus companionship? What do humans fundamentally need from each other?
  11. How did you feel about the final chapter of the book, which aligns with our own historical moment? Why might Rooney have chosen to conclude in this way?
  12. In her acknowledgments, the author describes the multiple origins of the novel's title. What does the beautiful world finally mean to Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon? Do they find it? Would the title mean something else if it ended with a question mark?
  13. The author's writing style has been praised for delivering direct, precise depictions of complex characters trying to understand each other. How did Beautiful World, Where Are You enhance your understanding of other books by Sally Rooney that you have read previously?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Picador. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A novel that navigates the complexities of love, sex and friendship in modern Dublin while raising questions about social injustice.

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Beautiful World, Where Are You centers around four key characters, the most prominent of which are Eileen and Alice, both in their late 20s, who have been friends since their university days at Trinity College. Since then, their lives have followed very different trajectories: While Eileen works in a low-paid — if enjoyable — job for a Dublin-based literary magazine, Alice has rapidly found fame and fortune as a young novelist, an ascent that has resulted in her hospitalization for burnout and depression. The novel primarily pivots around the relationship between these two young women.

This relationship is complicated by Alice and Eileen's connection with staunch Catholic Simon, who works for the Irish Parliament and becomes increasingly aware of his inability to effect positive social change despite his political insider status. Simon has known Eileen all her life and is five years her senior. The relationship between the two has always been based on a close emotional bond, occasionally veering into something more. Neither, however, verbalizes their true feelings for the other, providing a "will they or won't they" element for the reader. Add to the mix Felix, a warehouse worker who meets Alice on a dating app and happens to live in the coastal town to which she has fled post-breakdown, and the scene is set for the hotbed of insecurities, yearnings and ambiguities that make up Rooney's typical subject matter, as previously explored in Conversations with Friends and the acclaimed Normal People.

The novel's title is posed as a question, yet the omission of the question mark may cause the reader to wonder as to the reason for this. It could suggest that the characters are on some kind of quest to find meaning in their lives; however, the tentative tone of the question indicates that there is no real expectation of an answer. Indeed, the lack of centeredness that young adults face in the early 21st century seems to be a theme that Rooney is examining.

Much of the narrative is epistolary in form, comprised of lengthy email exchanges — whole chapters — between Eileen and Alice. It is through these highly introspective communications that the characters' lack of direction and purpose, as well as their helplessness, are revealed. Very early in the novel, for example, Eileen recounts an episode in a local convenience store, during which it suddenly strikes her that the vast array of choice on offer is a "culmination of all the labor in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the back-breaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations." She ruminates that this "lifestyle" supported by the world's capitalist enterprises is not even satisfying; it is later noted that much of the modern world, with all its plastic and concrete, is in fact rather ugly. Such political awareness is pronounced in today's young adults, who stand at a unique moment in time wherein many global concerns are made inescapably apparent via mass media. Because of this, Eileen's sense of discontent will strike a chord only too well with contemporary readers, and echoes the sentiments of the novel's title.

Despite their awareness of global crises and injustices, the characters always circle back to the "trivialities" that define their immediate, intimate world. They perceive it as "vulgar, decadent" to invest their efforts in personal relationships while "human civilization is facing collapse." But is it in society where their "beautiful world" can be found? Is this where they will locate their center? After all, public acclaim has brought the economically affluent Alice financial security but no happiness. These are questions with which the characters must grapple as they struggle to reconcile their personal lives with more public concerns.

Rooney speaks to a generation of readers caught up in zeitgeisty dilemmas, much like J.D. Salinger held up a mirror to 1950s America in The Catcher in the Rye. At every turn, the novel confronts familiar features of our time, such as when Eileen reveals that two-thirds of her salary (only 20,000 euros per annum) goes to rent; this will resonate with young workers struggling to make it onto the housing ladder with little hope of a secure future. Such weighty concerns could be deeply depressing (at one point Eileen describes life as "standing in the last lighted room before the apocalypse"), yet Rooney does hint that there is joy to be found — most likely in the realm of the personal.

Rooney connoisseurs will be unfazed by her trademark stylistic practices, including her eschewing of quotation marks in direct speech. She is far from the first writer to reject this convention — among many others, her fellow Dubliner James Joyce completely disregarded the punctuation device. A lack of quotation marks is perhaps consistent with the fluency of communication in all its forms, whether email, direct speech or interior monologue. While it may be a source of irritation to some readers, for Rooney, it seems to reflect a cohesive marriage of style and subject matter. As we observe the relationship between Eileen and Alice imploding and unraveling, we bear witness to how blurred the boundaries of communication have become — but these more "modern" ways of communicating also form the bridge that allows them to rebuild their relationship.

Beautiful World, Where Are You will appeal to anyone interested in the human condition and the psychology of relationships — and it's quite the page-turner too.

Reviewed by Amanda Ellison

The A.V. Club
It's easy to dismiss the individual entries in Rooney's triptych as far too similar, too slight commentaries on, as she writes, "the trivialities of sex and friendship." But as Rooney grows, not only do her characters age—from their early 20s to their nearing 30s—so do her novels mature.

Esquire
Rooney hammers out the problems and promises of contemporary novels and contemporary life—all while reminding us of her distinctive style's disarming intimacies...This is Rooney stepping into herself as a fully-formed artist, ready to defend the validity and originality of her methods...Beautiful World combines the intricacies of Rooney's lightning-rod style, like her deep well of sympathy for her characters and her precise economy of language, with a growing maturity.

NPR
It's a testament to Rooney's curious, cerebral gifts as a writer that she not only draws her readers into tolerating long stretches of such ruminations but makes them so entertaining. We feel we're in good company with our own end-time anxieties...In this ambitious novel of sentiment and ideas, which is so up to the minute in its global concerns, Rooney ironically reaches back to one of the oldest forms of the novel, the epistolary or letter form, to tell her story...Rooney's novel, like all great fiction, is open-ended.

San Francisco Chronicle
Delightfully dirty at times and compulsively readable...Though it admittedly feels wickedly satisfying to be caught once again in Rooney's web of friendship-courtship entanglements, the pining glances, wounded squabbles and even the raunchy, sexy scenes aren't the reasons to read Beautiful World...Instead, it's what Rooney does with the other chapters — probing letters between Alice and Eileen — that feels so experimental and exciting.

The New York Times
"Beautiful World, Where Are You" is Rooney's best novel yet. Funny and smart, full of sex and love and people doing their best to connect.

Booklist (starred review)
Writing with her trademark truthfulness and wit, Rooney compels with both these meta-conversations and the actions of her characters' lives: their enthralling, intimate, and consequential grappling with themselves, with one another, and with beauty, sex, and friendship. Rooney's first novel since Normal People, which became a popular and award-winning Hulu series, is steadily drawing excitement.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In many ways, this book, a work of both philosophy and romantic tragicomedy about the ways people love and hurt one another, is exactly the type of book one would expect Rooney to write out of the political environment of the past few years. But just because the novel is so characteristic of Rooney doesn't take anything away from its considerable power...A novel of capacious intelligence and plenty of page-turning emotional drama.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] cool, captivating story...Rooney establishes a distance from her characters' inner lives, creating a sense of privacy even as she describes Alice and Eileen's most intimate moments. It's a bold change to her style, and it makes the illuminations all the more powerful when they pop. As always, Rooney challenges and inspires.

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Literary Dublin

Bloomsday performers outside Davy Byrnes pub The backdrop of Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You is the city of Dublin and its environs. Rooney herself lives in this UNESCO City of Literature, a metropolis that boasts a flourishing literary scene and an impressive inventory of influential authors, poets and playwrights. The streets of the vibrant capital are infused with the presence of its bookish greats, with landmarks never more than a few minutes away.

Cross a bridge over the River Liffey, and it most likely has a literary connection — three are named after Sean O'Casey, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, the last of which faces the house mentioned in "The Dead," the final story in the author's Dubliners: "the dark, gaunt house on Usher's Island." Dublin even has its own unofficial literary holiday — Bloomsday — designated as acknowledgement of one of Joyce's most acclaimed novels, Ulysses, which recounts a day in the life of Leopold Bloom (the book's protagonist): June 16, 1904.

Visitors to Dublin can bask in the wealth of literary luxury this city has to offer. What follows are some of its most celebrated libraries, bookshops, pubs and eateries.

Libraries

Tucked away along St. Patrick's Close is Marsh's Library, dating back to 1707 and Ireland's first public library. Housing 25,000 books and showcasing beautifully preserved dark oak bookcases and original seating, it is worth a place on any book-lover's itinerary.

Dublin's jewel in the crown, however, is the Trinity College library. With over six million volumes, it is little wonder that its alumni are so illustrious: Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, Sally Rooney and more.

The Trinity library's "Old Library" is home to the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript dating to between the 6th and 8th centuries that includes the four gospels of the New Testament. The main chamber of the Old Library is called the Long Room; it is lined with marble busts of philosophers and writers. Since 1801 the library has enjoyed legal deposit status, which means that it can claim a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Bookshops

No visit to a city of literature can be complete without patronizing at least one of its bookshops. Ireland's oldest bookshop (and believed to be the third oldest in the world), Hodges Figgis, has graced Dawson Street since 1768. Although giving every appearance of being independent, it was in fact purchased by the Waterstones chain several years ago. It is yet another Dublin location appearing in Ulysses. The shop also gets a mention in Sally Rooney's first two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People.

To experience a truly independent bookshop, make your way to Ormond Quay, where The Winding Stair is located. The inspiration behind the store's name is a poem by William Butler Yeats: "My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair." There is a restaurant upstairs where patrons can sample traditional Irish fare while reading a book and accessing views over the Liffey. Following its popularity in the 1970s and 80s, The Winding Stair was close to closure in 2005, but bounced back and is now thriving in the heart of literary Dublin.

Pubs and Eateries

Davy Byrnes on Duke Street has established its reputation through its literary clientele. This is where Leopold Bloom of Ulysses popped in for his cheese sandwich.

He entered Davy Byrnes. Moral pub. He doesn't chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in a leap year once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once.

Davy Byrne came forward from the hindbar in tuckstitched shirtsleeves, cleaning his lips with two wipes of his napkin. Herring's blush. Whose smile upon each feature plays with such and such replete. Too much fat on the parsnips.

The pub's interior is something of a medley of styles, with a colorful ceiling, murals of historic Dublin and small statues adorning the area behind the bar. Joyce frequented this pub and knew Davy Byrne himself, who founded the establishment in the 1880s.

Also mentioned in Ulysses is the Shelbourne Hotel's 1824 Bar. The 5-star hotel has been a favorite of celebrities past and present, including Charlie Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as literary heavyweights like William Thackeray and Seamus Heaney. Elizabeth Bowen even wrote a book, The Shelbourne, about the hotel, which is located at St. Stephen's Green. The 1824 Bar, with its decadent dark paneling and green leather furniture, can be found at the top of the Shelbourne's grand staircase.

Of course, the aforementioned venues are simply the tip of Dublin's literary iceberg; there are many more quirky and significant links to the city's rich creative heritage. The Abbey Theatre, for example, is revered for its connection to Yeats, who opened the venue with Lady Gregory in 1904. It is well worth a visit simply because of its history and its relative affordability.

Joyce once famously commented, "When I die Dublin will be written in my heart." Today, literary Dublin will surely touch the heart of any literature enthusiast.

Bloomsday performers outside Davy Byrnes pub in Dublin, 2003, via Wikimedia Commons

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