Reading “Beautiful World, Where Are You” on the New York subway
I‘m spending the next year of my life traveling Europe and I’ve been trying to figure out a good way to sprinkle in some of my travels on this blog that is—well, about books and publishing, not travel.
Seems the best way to do that is by reviewing the books I’m reading and discussing the location where I read them in the meantime.
The Book: Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
A disappointing 2/5 stars.
*No spoilers, just bits about the plot*
I had high hopes for this book. Normal People cemented itself in my Top 10 of all-time favorite books. I adored the characters of Connell and Marrianne, flaws and all.
But when it came to the quartet of Alice, Eileen, Felix and Simon, I couldn’t find anything redeeming. The novel bounces back and forth between the lives and perspectives of Alice and Eileen—two friends from college who write each other over-the-top emails regarding intimacy and societal norms and philosophical debates.
Alice is an author and Eileen works for a literary magazine. The two seem lonely and only really have each other—and the men in their life. We’ll get to them in a minute.
The emails between the two just felt so unnatural. While the concept of solely communicating through email seems odd, it was easy for me to look past that. But it was the content of the messages that just seemed so unrealistic. Both Alice and Eileen had a rather pretentious air about them, and it was hard for me to particularly like either character.
Felix is a warehouse worker living in the town that Alice moves to. After an extremely awkward first date, Alice invites him to Rome. I do have to give kudos to Roony for so expertly writing these awkward encounters, that does take a certain skill. I often felt myself wanting to look away out of second-hand embarassment.
Eileen and Simon have been friends since childhood and a romantic/sexual tension is constantly apparent when they’re together. For me personally, Simon is easily the most likeable out of the four (but that’s still not saying much).
Roony does a fantastic job exploring relationships and the inner-workings of people—the bad and the good. But as I stated before, I couldn’t find anything “good” about these characters that made me feel compassionate or empathetic toward them. There was always a persistent air of desperation, cringe or self-pity that isn’t something I necessarily enjoy in a book.
I still love Roony’s writing, she’s clearly talented and the way she constructs and executes certain scenes is admirable. I just found the plot rather lacking in this novel, and the ending didn’t surprise me or redeem anything that came before it.
Before starting Beautiful World, Where Are You, I did read a NY Times interview with Roony about the book as well as her reaction to the fame that has accompanied her widespread success. It’s clear she’s not a fan of the celebrity status she now has and misses her previous quiet, reserved life—a trait we see reflected in the character of Alice.
I can understand why people would enjoy this book. As I said before, Roony is an exceptional writer and has an unnerving ability to create tension. I just didn’t find it executed well in the characters for this specific book.
The Place: New York City in September
I was located pretty far from Manhattan during my stay in New York. It was about a 50-minute commute each way whenever I wanted to adventure into the city. This left me with long subway rides. After I exhausted my queue of podcasts, I went into a Barnes & Noble one day and bought Roony’s latest book.
I vowed to only read it while on the subway—a promise I thought would be hard to keep. I assumed I’d be antsy to keep turning the pages—but from my review earlier, that wasn’t the case and I only read the book during my commute.
I’ve never been to the East coast before—let alone New York. Before heading off to Europe I spent 12 days there. Part of me has always felt drawn to the city and it has been a place I’ve wanted to live for a long time now. This trip confirmed that desire.
Aside from the immediate draw of public transportation—a luxury I’ve only experienced while traveling and never in a place I’ve permanently lived—I just adored everything about the city. The constant movement, the unmatched energy, the beautiful strolls through Central Park juxtaposed by the towering buildings nearby.
I had so much fun with friends both new and old. Drinking custom drinks on the 54th floor of a rooftop bar, getting lost in Williamsburg looking for a bite to eat, eating Mexican food on a sidewalk underneath the city lights, finding bakeries for a late-night snack at 2am.
In hindsight I can’t say I did a lot. My favorite part about going to new places is honestly just walking around. I could spend hours just walking the streets and looking—which is exactly what I did. I ate a lot of really great food, shared a lot of laughs and memories with friends and spent most of the time with my neck craned upward just admiring the buildings.
My last night in the city, one of my favorite experiences was just sitting in Washington Square Park. I had a coffee, some pastries and was sitting on a bench waiting for my friend to get off work.
I first got approached by someone filming a video about human connections and got flowers for being a part of the project, and then a girl sitting a bench over talked to me for 30 minutes while she was waiting for her friend too.
That’s what I love most about travel, just meeting an array of people and hearing their stories.
It’s safe to say I would be very content if New York became my home in a year after Europe.
It would’ve been a lot harder to leave if my next destination wasn’t Nice—a coastal town in France—but given that I’m writing this blog post from a cute little coffee shop on the port, I’m not too eager to return.