In a McDonald’s somewhere between California and Rhode Island, I was waiting for an M&M McFlurry. I had one week and one car to get myself to Brown for the fall. I received a jarring text: “SALLY ROONEY HAS A NEW BOOK OUT?!?!?!”
I almost forgot all about my McFlurry. I was annoyed at the insinuation that my friend knew something about Sally Rooney that I didn’t. Here was my holier-than-thou abstinence from social media, once again biting me in the ass. A quick Google search “confirmed” what I had not known: the new Sally Rooney book was coming out a week from that day. It had a cover and everything. Cerulean blue, with the title “Beautiful World, Where are You” blocked out in white letters. Celebrities, apparently, were already tweeting. Maggie Rogers was raving about it, Elise texted. I did not want to think about the title’s possible meaning. I did not think about how my road trip was like my own little quest to find a beautiful world. I thought about whether or not I needed to get gas, since I had already stopped.
I ate my McFlurry outside, next to the highway, mostly scooping the M&M’s from the top. In the trunk of my car I had the things I had never been able to fly with on my way to school: the quilt from my bed, one mug, and a box of books. Some of the books were random, brought along because they were stored on the floor next to the already full bookshelves of my bedroom. But a few of them were my little travel companions, superstitiously chosen to keep me safe. Maybe it was because I had with me Rooney’s two other novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, that I made it through the 14-hour drive from Des Moines to Cleveland despite the intermittently torrential rain. You never know!
I slowly McFlurried my way through this country, towards our beloved Providence, toward the friend who had given me Conversations with Friends. Every mile I drove was a mile farther from my family—my brothers and their sports games and school plays, my parents and their ability to listen to me monologue for hours, my dog and her stinky breath. But I also soared (at a pace often well above the speed limit) closer to the world I had built here—staying up late conversing with friends, close-reading poetry for some kind of “degree,” and eating too much By Chloe (which my editor would like to note is now, regrettably, renamed “Beatnic”). I am bolstered by Rooney’s dedication to finding importance in the mundane. Her fiction is full of banal day-to-day activities that seem significant, significant activities that seem banal, and lots of unexpressed interiority while trying to connect with your closest people.
I was having this feeling, as I drove through upstate New York, of being weirded out by the state of the world. It is creepy, all the strange things that we do—this “country” we have here, built up of little McDonald’s lining highways full of people sitting in cars, texting each other about tweets, all trying to get through the day—probably wanting to feel a little bit connected—probably feeling less connected than they’d like.
I survived the road trip, unpacked my car, and made plans to walk to Books on the Square for my copy of Beautiful World. I surveyed my bedroom, the bed with my familiar quilt on it, the tiny desk by the window, now stacked with more books than could fit on the shelves. I was grossed out by my obsession with these material goods. Shouldn’t there be some other way to live than spending money at a McDonald’s and then a bookstore and then talking to your friends while people had actual life and death needs that were going unmet? One of the characters in Rooney’s new book thinks a similar thing; she describes feeling dizzy as she looks around at the accumulated wealth represented by the convenience store she is in, the ease with which she buys her packaged lunch and all that goes into that one little product. But she buys the lunch anyway. I bought the book.
It is strange to me, the degree to which people (myself included) inhale these books. Yet here I am, writing an overly romanticized ode to a book which is far from perfect. The writing is pretty good. I’ve seen Rooney do things with a sentence that most people couldn’t do in a novel—seasons pass, hearts break, entire rooms appear in my mind’s eye. But when I talk to people about her books, we do not linger on the details of syntax or diction.
These books have sparked late-night conversations about interpersonal power dynamics, class, and gender; they have incited arguments with some of my close friends. They do not handle all issues with equal dexterity, nor should books rooted in such subjective personal experience be looked to for allegorical resonance. The American assumption that Rooney’s books—rife with self-referential white people—are universally relatable, is foolish. As characters, however, these protagonists are so deeply flawed it is hard not to buy into their humanity.
Once I was sold, I was much more susceptible to the ways this book would mess with my emotions.
Take my mounting anxiety about love. I am normally a reasonably positive person, but a summer of heartbreak led me to feel as if it might be better to swear off love forever. Okay, that’s not what I meant, I just said that to be dramatic. I do think I know how to love, and I didn’t learn it from Sally Rooney last week.
I had sworn off sex, to be precise. It had entirely too many negative externalities, despite attempts to mitigate them.
Reading Beautiful World, Where Are You, I realized that swearing off sex may have been an overreaction. Rooney, with grace and compassion, brought me into a world of complex characters doing silly things, in spite (and perhaps because) of love. Friendships strain, people get hurt, miscommunications abound. But throughout it all, there’s an optimistic streak. It’s as if the answer to the title’s question is: right here. In these little ordinary things we do lies the beauty the world has to offer. Sitting at the computer late at night writing an article for post- while your roommate eats a quesadilla is both where you look for and find the so-called “beautiful world.”
In reminding me of what there is to love in this world—even if it’s just a book by a writer who lives across an ocean—I felt something open up again. Alas. Maybe love will be back on the table.