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Sally Rooney's 'Beautiful World, Where Are You' pairs love with clairvoyant political commentary

With its relatable characters and gripping writing, "Beautiful World, Where Are You" is a beautiful and artistic display of friendship, relationships and love.  – Photo by Farrar,Straus & Giroux / Twitter

What exactly is love? Why do people choose to get into romantic relationships with others? 

Sally Rooney, the best-selling author of “Conversations with Friends” and “Normal People” gorgeously contemplates these questions in her novels. Her latest book, “Beautiful World, Where are You," released on Sept. 7, searches beyond these earnest questions to create a novel with searing political commentary pertinent to our generation. 

We get many of our messages about what love is from mainstream media, which is oftentimes greatly misogynistic, homophobic, racist or just plain unrealistic.  

Think about it: all those Disney movies you watched and rewatched as a child, the Wattpad you greedily consumed under bed sheets as a pre-teen, the questionable music videos you couldn’t peel your eyes from in middle school, all of your favorite comfort movies where the pretty girl is enough to change the bad boy’s ways and ultimately make him fall for her.

While the media poison we dearly love may be entertaining, none of these sources give accurate or timely ways to create and maintain the sustainable relationships with one another most of us desperately crave. Can you imagine a relationship with Mr. Rochester? Or the fleety Ramona Flowers? 

Rooney creates relationships that are exactly the ones we should look for in one another. She’s called the "Salinger for the Snapchat generation” — which, although a delicious phrase that could make any novelist gush, it isn’t enough to totally encapsulate Rooney’s brilliance.

Her newest book follows Alice and Eileen, two friends from college, one a well-known writer and the other a literary editor, as they attempt to navigate relationships with Felix and Simon. The four of them make an unlikely ensemble, but together, somehow paint a beautiful mosaic of the human spirit. 

Much of the relationship between Alice and Eileen takes place in the form of existential emails to one another that span from updates on their sex lives to political takes about the state of the world. They move from issue to issue seamlessly, touching on cancel culture, the collapse of society as it relates to history and a whole lot of Marxism.

“Personally I have to exercise a lot of agency in reading, and understanding what I read, and bearing it all in mind for long enough to make sense of the book as I go along,” Alice writes to Eileen.

Such is true for any book, but especially for “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” Rooney is in a genre of her own. The reader may find themselves look away from the page, sigh deeply, and tell themselves that this is all they’ve ever wanted for themselves. She touches on that deep feeling of being known and knowing others, in all of its difficult, painful but ultimately worthwhile glory. 

Part of Rooney’s signature literary craft includes never using quotation marks during dialogue. Although it can be difficult to gauge what the characters are saying to one another at first, it soon induces an effect that’s similar to the way conversations are had in real life.

When speaking to others, our hand movements, tone, setting, thoughts, trauma and even ominous thoughts of impending societal collapse are constant factors that continue to shape and direct our conversations. 

By rejecting the quotation mark, Rooney is attesting that everything that is happening and has happened to us is in constant relation. 

She writes in such an intoxicating, all-consuming way where the reader can't possibly conceive of doing anything other than continuing into the descent of her characters’ minds. Many Rooney readers finish her books in one day, and oftentimes, a single sitting.

The sex scenes in Rooney’s novels are otherworldly, transcendental experiences, and a reader may find themselves doggy-earing the pages of intimate moments in “Beautiful World, Where Are You" to be read when one is alone with themselves, and, you know, alone with themselves. 

An astute reader would know that Rooney would not take too kindly to any article that focuses too heavily on herself instead of the subject of her work, but her latest public move fits closely with some of the themes in the book. 

Rooney recently refused a deal with an Israeli publisher who bought the rights to her previous books to translate “Beautiful World ,Where Are You” into Hebrew, citing human rights organizations that describe Israel’s racial segregation of the Palestinians as apartheid according to international law. 

She explained in a statement, “Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses. This was also true of South Africa during the campaign against apartheid there. In this particular case, I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions.”

Her stance is in accordance with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that “works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

Although the book is rife with politics and the ever-impending doom of the pandemic that begins at the end of the novel, the conclusion of the book is, surprisingly, hopeful. It’s not easy to correctly diagnose the ills of our current society, harder still to attempt to respond to such weighing existentialism.

James Baldwin once said, “Hope is invented every day,” and the ending of the novel suggests this seemingly simple yet incredibly radical idea. “Beautiful World, Where Are You” tells us this: People change. All the time. And most of the time — beautifully, tenderly, hopefully, luckily — people change because of other people.

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