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Discussion Guide

Beautiful World, Where Are You: A Novel

By Sally Rooney

 

In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney takes on her most ambitious challenge yet: writing the whole world. Your book club questions whether she succeeds. 

 

Book Summary

 

It’s hard to get what you want. Sally Rooney has written three novels. Conversations With Friends, her debut, was fought over by seven separate presses. Its successor, Normal People, won major awards and was adapted into a Hulu/BBC series. Now we’re at number three, and everyone already loves it, even as a hat.

These achievements don’t do justice to her skills. Rooney writes small details and sex scenes so well because as an artist she understands restraint perfectly. That’s why we keep coming back for more of these carnal, vulnerable, challenging, and contemplative Irish youths. Think of Connell’s chain.

 

For your book club, we might begin by suggesting Beautiful World is Rooney coming to grips with the wild success, and aesthetic power, of her previous work. What should she do now, as an artist people listen to and take seriously? And what “people” are they? Where are they from? How seriously do they take her, or are they just here to say they read Sally Rooney? And what are the limitations of a voice, a method, an identity based in understatement?

 

Flattery and appearances all play a huge role in Beautiful World. So do major global issues, what the novel itself calls “general systems collapse.” Alice worries about “suppressing the truth of the world” beneath the “glittering surface” of her texts. Critics have called Rooney’s topics limited; Eileen, another character in Beautiful World, can’t believe she’s still talking about “sex and friendship” when so much is going wrong. Our guiding question, therefore, is:



Given that it understands its limitations, what does Beautiful World feel a responsibility to do?

 

 

Let our Beautiful World, Where Are You discussion questions below help guide you to an answer. 

Discussion Questions

Use these discussion questions to guide your next book club meeting.

1. Are Alice and Eileen two distinct people? Are they two possible lives for one person? Do their emails read like they’re written by two different personalities?
2. Back to question one; let me rephrase. The New York Times, with admirable confidence, declares “Alice Kelleher [is] a clear stand-in for the author.” Are you as sure as The New York Times?

 In Beautiful World itself, Alice says: “what is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway?…And what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms…Nothing.” What do you think relating a book to an author’s life, or an author’s face does? Why is it tempting, or profitable, to establish that relationship? (Since Alice, or Rooney’s, book tours and interviews might suggest that it is)
3. When you read a novel, you’ll notice its pacing: whether it seems to go by fast or slow. Pacing can be a function of many things, like how interested you are. If you don’t care about any of the characters, you’d probably rather spend five hours at the dentist than reading a particular novel, because they’d go by faster and less invasively. 

But pacing is also about form: how a novel is arranged; how it chooses to present its story. For instance, Rooney chooses to interrupt the narrative of Beautiful World every other chapter with emails between Alice and Eileen. 

 Some of us may not have been totally on board with this choice.

 Before we get into the correspondence itself, let’s ask: Does interrupting the forward progress of Beautiful World seem to slow it down? Is this a novel you read to get to the end?