The image of a freshly minted twentysomething drinking a seven-dollar oat milk latte and reading a Sally Rooney novel has become a figurehead image of the young, overly citified set and, to be honest, I’m very much in that picture. A few weeks after Rooney’s latest, Beautiful World, Where Are You, came out last year, I went to Barnes and Noble and danced around the stack of copies sitting at the front of the store, eyeing the bright blue covers, flipping the pages. Should I be That Girl? I thought, and then decided, at the end, to lean into the trope.
Rooney’s novels sell the promise of belonging to a literary universe in which characters’ proclivities towards irony and doubt mesh with their concern for ethical living, all packaged and beribboned with the decoration of self-awareness. Despite the fact that her characters often mistake this self-awareness for virtue (as Katy Waldman argues in the New Yorker), Rooney positions this self-awareness as a byproduct of a pervasive, incessant fear—predominantly a fear of commitment, to other people, to the conscious adherence to a specific belief system—and structures her narratives on what happens when one does (or doesn’t) confront that fear.
Rooney, a thirty-year-old Irish Marxist who writes about the vast inner lives of twentysomething millennials, debuted in 2017 with her novel Conversations with Friends, which projected her to mainstream literary stardom. Her second book, Normal People, sold a million copies last year and was made into a Hulu/BBC miniseries, and her third, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was published in 2021 with much hullabaloo: fans with followings received PR packages that included bucket hats that matched the book covers.
Her novels focus primarily on relationships and their power dynamics. Conversations with Friends maps the friendship of college students Bobbi and Frances; Normal People explores the will-they won’t-they pull between Connell and Marianne; Beautiful World, Where Are You focuses largely on the correspondence between Alice and Eileen. The characters across all three books have different personalities but similar practices and longings. If they try to initially play themselves off as coolly detached from traditional institutions, those façades quickly give way to an expressed desire to believe in something worthwhile, coupled with an unwillingness to consciously commit to a belief system. They have lengthy email exchanges through which they talk about their love lives and their internal conflicts about living in an inherently flawed political system, one that makes everyone who lives within it at least to some degree complicit in its failures. At the same time, though, they recognize that much of their discourse about life and living well seems unmoored from a particular system of ethics that makes sense holistically.
But, New Yorker staff writer Katy Waldman argues, that recognition ought to be a means by which the characters develop, not the end, which is the way that Rooney’s characters treat it. While the books fall into the tradition of the Bildungsroman, the coming-of-age story, Rooney’s characters don’t follow the standard arc of self-confrontation and growth. Rather, Waldman says, they’re “tuned to problems but unable to solve them. The self-scrutiny and self-recrimination remain; the maturity is optional.” Of course, that stasis could be the point of Rooney’s novels, but Waldman doesn’t think it is. “Characters say that they care about love and justice,” she writes, “[but] what they really seem to care about is external validation.” Furthermore, she adds, the author rewards them for it.
This is true—at least of the characters from Rooney’s first two novels. Frances, Bobbi, Marianne, and Connell all learn and ponder things throughout the novel, but the degree to which they actually grow as people is minimal. They think about ethics without actually trying to necessarily be more ethical; they continue to engage in questionable relationships, even as they recognize them as questionable; they hardly even treat their close friends well. People can be self-aware without accruing the goodness necessary to turn that self-awareness into something actually good, and sometimes that failure isn’t remedied, maybe ever, even when people’s coming-of-age stories reach their conclusion.
But Waldman also wrote the piece in 2020, before the publication of Beautiful World, Where Are You, which perhaps casts the characters’ quandaries in a clearer light. Unlike Rooney’s first two novels, which deal with characters in the first blush of their twenties, Beautiful World, Where Are You centers on twenty-nine-year-olds Alice and Eileen, whose existential quandaries lead them into a kind of philosophical no man’s land, a fact that they both readily admit to. Their impending transition into their thirties makes them a little more transparent about their attraction to the satisfaction one might derive from a more clearly defined belief system (and all the fear that comes with that).
“I suppose the point I’m making is that there’s no end of fun to be had once you get into the Christian mindset,” Alice writes in an email to Eileen.
For you and me it’s harder, because we can’t seem to shake the conviction that nothing matters, life is random, our sincerest feelings are reducible to chemical reactions, and no objective moral law structures the universe. It’s possible to live with those convictions, of course, but not really possible, I don’t think, to believe the things that you and I say we believe.
Located within that admission to living in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance is a sincerity that is both frustrating and appealing. Frustrating, because it endlessly circles around substance while giving off the appearance of such; appealing because in that sincerity you track both honesty and fear. You track the honesty of Alice’s feelings, but more than that, you track her fear of being wrong, her fear of commitment to something she doesn’t think she can fully endorse. That “nowhere place”—that’s where she lands, her final home and her fatal flaw.
We can work backwards from that fear though to the other novels as well. In Conversations with Friends, Frances secludes the workings of her mind and life from her outside relationships—even from her closest friend, Bobbi; she relishes the idea of being a “very autonomous and independent person with an inner life that nobody had ever touched or perceived.” She ensures that her physical actions and words remain disembodied from what transpires in her own mind, because she fears the power that she might give to others if she actually acknowledges what she wants, even though her compulsions often lay those motivations bare anyway. Meanwhile, Normal People traces the inner workings of Marianne’s and Connell’s fears contained within their relationship with each other. Connell “fears being around [Marianne], because of the confusing way he finds himself behaving, the things he says that he would never ordinarily say.” There’s the fear of losing the other person, the fear that any change, any vocalization of need or doubt or desire, will crumble the world they’ve created for themselves with each other.
Sometimes Rooney’s characters conquer the fear; sometimes they don’t. It’s a huge reason why the characters bubble-wrap themselves in layers of self-awareness: when you persistently question what goodness is, no matter how sincere the questioning, you inevitably use it as a method by which to avoid the conclusion. Ironically, that inconclusiveness then becomes your conclusion. Beautiful World, Where Are You reckons most closely with that fear; in fact, Alice admits to it. “Could it be that easy?” she asks.
We just have to weep and prostrate ourselves and God forgives everything? But maybe it’s not easy at all—maybe to weep and prostrate ourselves with genuine sincerity is the hardest thing we could ever learn how to do. I feel certain I don’t understand how to do it. I have that resistance in me, that hard little kernel of something, which I fear would not let me prostrate myself before God even if I believed in him.
There’s something gripping in the image of a person who intentionally stays in a state of perpetual moral paralysis so as to avoid falling to their knees. From the Christian mindset (in which, of course, “there is no end of fun to be had”), it will always read as avoidance of the inevitable, that circling around a tangible, existent belief in God.
But it’s also wholly honest. Even within the lives of people of faith, fear doesn’t often end; in fact, sometimes we accommodate certain fears within faith, and sometimes we use our faith to justify our fears. The monumental task of completely convincing oneself of the absolute irrelevance of fear in the face of the terrors of this world—it’s impossible without a tacit acknowledgment of God, and it’s impossible within the limitations of ourselves.
So maybe the only answer to this fear is that self-awareness which so characterizes Rooney’s work. Perhaps it’s the only answer within the schema of her world, the only means by which characters can seek to understand the fundamentals of who they are in their cultural context, and thus derive the meanings of their lives. Maybe they have to be self-aware because that awareness of self is all that they think that they have. Thus, it’s their philosophical end.
And perhaps that the frustration there is that it doesn’t have to be.