Day 6·Should I Read It?

Sally Rooney's new novel is exquisitely written, but doesn't live up to the hype: Toyne

Irish writer Sally Rooney's latest novel, 'Beautiful World, Where Are You,' was one of the most anticipated book releases of 2021. But does the bestseller live up to the hype? Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne weighs in.

Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne says she enjoyed her experience reading the novel, but not the novel itself.

Sally Rooney's third novel is Beautiful World, Where Are You.
Sally Rooney's third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was published on Sept. 7, 2021. (Faber and Faber, Jonny L. Davies/Knopf Canada)

It's safe to say Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You was one of the most hyped novels of 2021.

The book was an immediate Amazon bestseller on the day of its Sept. 7, 2021, release — and Rooney's American publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, distributed branded merchandise such as tote bags and bucket hats prior to the novel's release.

Beautiful World, Where Are You was so widely anticipated that an advance copy of the book sold for more than $200 in June, months before its release.

The anticipation isn't surprising, though. Rooney has been described by The New York Times as the "first great millennial author," and her last novel, Normal People, was adapted into an Emmy Award-nominated TV series.

But hype can only take a novel so far, especially when the book itself may not live up to it.

"In a nutshell, I will say that I hugely enjoyed my experience of reading this novel, which is not necessarily to say that I enjoyed this novel," said Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne.

Becky Toyne is books columnist for Day 6. (Submitted by Becky Toyne)

Rooney's third novel

Beautiful World, Where Are You follows the stories of four characters — Irish novelist Alice Kelleher, her lover Felix Brady, friend Eileen Lydon, and Lydon's friend Simon Costigan — whose lives are intertwined.

Through these characters, Rooney explores themes such as romance, friendship and social class — though not always in a way Toyne enjoyed. 

"One of the relationships between Alice and Eileen is told almost exclusively through these very long emails … that one might imagine a character in a Jane Austen novel [would write] late at night by candlelight," she said. 

These email conversations often covered topics such as climate change, politics and mental health. These are all issues that can be expected in a Rooney novel, but Toyne says the approach was too didactic, to the point where she felt she was being lectured to by the characters rather than learning anything about them.

"For me, that was just really, really problematic," she said. "In a novel that is about relationships … I found it very difficult to understand how the characters related to one another."

Though Rooney seemed to miss the mark when it came to exploring character relationships, Toyne says the Irish author got it right when it came to transporting the reader into the book's setting.

Sally Rooney attends the 2019 Costa Book Awards held at Quaglino's on January 29, 2019 in London, England. (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

"So I said that I really enjoyed my experience of reading this novel, and that's because I think that Sally Rooney's words on the page are exquisite," she said.

Rooney's ability to bring her settings and characters' actions to life using descriptive language is one of her key storytelling strengths, according to Toyne. She can recall even some of the most mundane tasks performed in Beautiful World, Where Are You, like characters making a cup of tea or getting dressed. 

"These really, really fine, ordinary details that actually make the sentences and [the reader's] ability to kind of picture yourself in her world [are] really, really fantastic," Toyne said. 

Should you read it?

For Toyne, the answer is no.

But if you're looking to get into Rooney's work, Toyne recommends perusing Normal People before tackling this one. 

"Because [Normal People] taps back into that first adolescent crush, kind of sexual-politics nature, it was able to grab onto me more strongly than Beautiful World, Where Are You," she said.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Laurie Allen. 

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.


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