The Social Lives of Millennials

Beautiful World, Where Are You
By Sally Rooney
356 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.


It’s been my experience that the closer you are to someone, the greater the risk of separation. By which I mean that to let someone close to you, truly close, you have to reveal some part of yourself you often keep stuffed down some obscure hallway inside. Closeness breeds volatility, not due to the act of being close in itself, but because even a small misunderstanding with someone you are close to can turn into a gaping chasm capable of engulfing you both. Being misunderstood by someone we love is in some ways tantamount to a type of rejection, or at least it can easily be seen as such if it isn’t quickly corrected.

Sally Rooney’s characters tend to suffer in isolation from being too close to one another. Communication isn’t their strong suit, which means misunderstandings can often lead to disaster. That’s as true in “Beautiful World, Where Are You” as it was in “Normal People,” but here, fortunately, four people are involved rather than just two, which means these miscommunications and proud perspectives are more easily called out.

While reading “Beautiful World,” I found myself wondering whether Rooney is truly a writer of the millennial experience on a global level, or if perhaps she’s speaking to a more specific type of millennial. Or, to put it another way, are millennials in Ireland and America the same?

Rooney’s characters write these comprehensive, intelligent missives to each other, emails that fill several pages here. Such long, written exchanges feel like a rarity on these shores, as TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter have left such verbosity feeling woefully antiquated. In addition, Rooney’s characters never discuss “Influencers” or the latest TikTok trend. In short, my feeling when finishing this book wasn’t, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” but rather, “Beautiful Characters, Where Are You?”

That’s not to say that the characters are all what one might call people of letters.

Felix — Alice’s Tinder date turned Rome escort — freely admits his lack of interest in anything Alice (a very successful novelist) has written, even after the two have started dating. He just doesn’t read.

Now that’s the kind of millennial I’m familiar with.

Alice feels very much like Rooney herself, both in the fact that she’s a wildly successful novelist and in some of the views she expresses in the emails she exchanges with her best friend, Eileen.

Have I mentioned that the emails are long?

The book is essentially laid out like this: 10 or so pages in the life of Alice, followed by an email of ten or so pages from Alice to Eileen, then 10 or so pages in the life of Eileen, followed by an email of ten or so pages from Eileen to Alice.

The emails are interesting and I quite enjoyed reading them, but it felt like cheating a bit. I mean in the sense that this novel’s Big Ideas are all fleshed out in the emails, where they’re able to be delivered so much easier.

One of the challenges for a novelist, I think, isn’t just figuring out what you want to say but how you’re going to say it. How you’re going to weave it into the narrative, in other words. But Rooney’s gotten around that by just saying what she wants to say in the emails, usually as Alice. And it works, it’s beautiful and thought provoking and all that, but it also felt a bit like a shortcut taken in the actual writing of a novel.

But taking shortcuts feels very much like something a millennial would do and Rooney is, after all, a millennial novelist. In this age of Knausgaard, Ferrante, and other “Auto Fiction,” you can tackle heady subjects in whatever format you like and still call it fiction. It’s the emotion that counts.

“Beautiful World, Where Are You” may not be the Great Millennial Novel, but it is both a millennial novel and pretty damn good. The question is, how will the inevitable television adaptation get around the half of the book that consists of only the email correspondence of two very close friends?

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