A love letter to sally rooney
If you had asked me one week ago if I considered myself a reader, I probably would’ve laughed and said something along the lines of “I can’t remember the last time I picked up a book that wasn’t for a class.” Yet this past week, I’ve brought Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You everywhere I go, getting a chapter or two in during the 30-minute gap between back-to-back classes, passing the time in K-Ville as I camped out for the basketball game, reading before bed with tea and in the morning with coffee. Needless to say, my TikTok screen time has plummeted.
The last time I had read for fun, before this past week, was in May of 2020, when Covid restrictions in my Los Angeles hometown were still strict, and reading presented one of few ways to pass the time. The book was Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. The time I read before that was March of 2020, when Covid was new and scary, and it rained all month. I was sad about missing out on my senior year of high school, and sulking in that sadness with a sad book felt fitting. The book was Normal People by—you guessed it!—Sally Rooney.
Reading Rooney feels like reading her diary entries: intensely personal. Her three books all revolve around normal people—pun fully intended—doing normal things. The characters are all Irish young adults, like herself, and they go to school, go to work, and most importantly, fall in and out of love. Love with each other, love with oneself, love with their passions, love in every meaning of the word.
I think what makes Rooney so special is her ability to capture and express emotion in a way that most people cannot even articulate to themselves, let alone to other people. Each time I read her books, I find that I understand myself more. And I’m not exactly sure why that is. You would think that reading allows you to understand other people more, or that the activity serves as a kind of escapism from your own reality. But because her characters’ emotional arcs are so common, and because she writes about these arcs in the most insightful and eloquent way, this reflective mindset rubs off on the reader.
I’d catch myself feeling sad or mad or happy or existential or lonely or loved, etc. etc., about something trivial, as I do, but instead of casting off these feelings as meaningless, I’d honor them. I’d write about them in my journal, perhaps copying, or at least attempting to copy, the level of self-awareness and reflection that Rooney herself possesses. I think she would hate the dismissing of something as “trivial”; if something, anything, causes an emotional response, then that’s something notable, something to write about.
And this concept, of course, applies to not-so-trivial experiences too. Midway through reading this book, my great grandmother passed away. It was hard to process that news when my entire family was back home, mourning together, and I was here in North Carolina—a six hour plane flight away. I’m not someone who likes to confide in others about my vulnerabilities, so finding a peaceful place on campus and reading by myself was therapeutic. It was comforting to read about the characters working through their own loss and hardship, as I worked through mine.
Normal People is about Marianne and Connell, whose relationship we see develop throughout high school and past university. The New York Times describes it as “moving and emotionally wrecking, in the best way,” with which I couldn’t agree more. The ups and downs of this love story had me at the heartstrings, and when the Hulu mini series about it aired, I definitely binged it in less than 24 hours.
Conversations with Friends is about a messily interconnected group of four: Frances and Bobbi, two university students that are exes yet best friends, and Melissa and Nick, a married couple in their thirties. Without spoiling too much, Melissa develops a fondness for Bobbi, so bitter Frances develops a crush on Nick, and the novel follows the four navigating this love square. The title is quite self-reflecting, as it tackles the characters’ questions of: What is a friend? What is a conversation? And why do the answers to those two prior questions mean anything? I think the biggest takeaway was that these conversations with friends might seem trivial in the moment, but that they mean everything retrospectively.
Beautiful World, Where are You is about another group of four, but this time less messily interconnected. Alice, a successful writer, and Eileen, a struggling editor, are best friends from university, and the book follows an exchange of life update emails, discussing their respective love interests of Simon and Felix. Alice and Eileen are smart, well-read, and witty, and surely discuss more than just Simon and Felix, such as current events, career changes, the existential crisis that comes with approaching 30 years old as a woman. But it always seems to come down to their relationships.
“So of course in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for? Love always, Alice.” (p. 146)
And the title is perfect. The lack of question mark demonstrates that when the characters, as well as Rooney, ask where the “beautiful world” is, they are asking rhetorically. They are not expecting a genuine answer because they know it does not exist; the world, on the surface, is ugly, full of hate and inequality and suffering. The beauty lies in the nuance of relationships.
I find these novels so refreshing. They give worth and meaning to relationships, both platonic and romantic, in a way that modern feminism oftentimes leaves out. They provide painfully relatable characters to those who are trying to understand their place in this world. They dive into class issues, politics, sexuality, and religion in a way that sparks empathy and discussion, rather than division and self-righteousness. They honor the multi-faceted magnificence of human emotion.
These takeaways may feel intuitive, but to many, and to me, it is freeing to read the perspective that a fulfilling life need not be defined by having some massive impact on the world, but rather be defined by surrounding yourself with love. So thank you, Sally Rooney, for the best (albeit only) three books I have read this past year.