The Literary Club

Is Sally Rooney Worth Your Time? Rating Normal People, Conversations with Friends, and Beautiful World Where Are You?

Novels of Sally Rooney

Irish novelist Sally Rooney unravels the similar overeducated and anxious characters in different words. Her dialogues are filled with discourse or complaints on Marxism, classism, late capitalism, identity and gender politics (even more likely to take place during a vacation in Southern Europe). Her novels continue to divide readers; some find her social complications infuriating and her characters unreliable, as did John Maier who finds them indulging in ‘almost pathological degree of highly absorbed self-examination‘. Despite receiving criticism that her work remains on the surface-level, her books are cherished by readers who underline paragraphs, noting that’s what they felt, as Anne Enright writes to the Guardian: ‘‘This is prose you either get or don’t get; for some it is incisive, for others banal. Which makes me wonder if it is so clean, it reflects the readers’ prejudices right back at them.’’

Time will determine if she will only be sidelined as a mere product of her decade, or as one of highly regarded contemporary authors that voiced millions of young adults. Even if you might be reading her for the slow-burn yet so intimate romances between Connell and Marianne or Francis and Nick, you cannot deny that her characters and their stories are well-rounded. 

Critics have agreed on the fact that what sets her apart is the raw depictions and subtleties of relationships between lovers and friends. Rooney’s introspection is translated to her ”ordinary” characters’ daily life or coming-of-age story. Her words skilfully illustrate the sense of urgency young people feel to understand the world.

While waiting for her new novel Intermezzo to be published this fall, I reflected on her previous works. In this article, you can find my rating of her three best-seller novels: Normal People, Conversations with Friends, and Beautiful World Where Are You?

Warning: Spoilers Ahead! 

#3 – Conversations with Friends

The main character Francis, a literature student in Dublin with an uncertain future, is in a relationship with the timid actor Nick, who is about ten years older than her and already committed to Melissa, a successful journalist. The novel progresses as Francis intrudes into the lives of the couple. Their secret relationship accelerates when Francis and her extroverted close friend Bobbi are invited to stay in France by Melissa. All of these characters are met during a poetry reading of Francis and Bobbi which takes place in the beginning of the novel. 

Francis could be disillusioned to some readers, but it’s undeniable that Rooney created her most significant flawed character. As an unreliable narrator Francis puts people she loves on a pedestal, and already despises a person in mere seconds of meeting. While trying to persuade Nick, Francis’ own insecurities with her own appearance and self-loathing tendencies of her social behaviour are imprinted onto her more lively companion Bobbi, and also onto wealthy and sophisticated Melissa.

A certain aspect of Rooney’s novels is that she’s not afraid of criticising her main characters and not romanticising them, which makes them even more natural as she explores the precarious relationship Francis tries so hard to hold onto.

Is Sally Rooney Worth Your Time? Rating Normal People, Conversations with Friends, and Beautiful World Where Are You? | Rock & Art
Photo by Vogue

But it might be the most tiresome Rooney book out of the three since we’re reading only one point of view, which becomes disengaging through time (though Melissa’s letter makes it worth reading up until to the end).

#2 – Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Here we are introduced to Alice, Eileen, Felix and Simon. In this book Rooney deeply explores the literature and publishing scene through two intellectual friends Alice and Eileen. Famous novelist Alice dates a warehouse worker Felix through Tinder and forms an unlikely romance. Eileen, who works in a literary magazine, mingles with her childhood friend, a handsome politician and a Catholic Simon. 

Rooney unpacks the lives of long-time friends Alice and Eileen through e-mails they write to each other, up until the end when they meet and resolve things they have bottled up, such as why they couldn’t just meet in person for so long. These emails work as diary entries and essays, often beginning with what random discourse they are momentarily fixated on, such as the Bronze Age Collapse or the story behind a Manet painting – perhaps late-night Wikipedia searches of Rooney’s own.

Though the most immersive aspect of these entries is not the extensive list of facts, it’s the shared tone and connection between Alice and Eileen. Rooney perfectly builds up a complex female friendship through a series of replies. Having not seen each other for so long, the two slowly warm up to each other and ease through the virtual conversation from these trivial findings. And then comes their deepest, most sincere feelings they fail to mention to any other characters. We are exposed to Eileen’s deep fear of failure, Alice’s imposter syndrome, and both of them trying to find reason in their irrational feelings towards the people they love. Right after the touching and thought-provoking entries they end the emails with a totally cheerful invite to get coffee in Dublin.

As a romance writer, Alice grapples with the idea that her work is a slepiece of entertainment and that she doesn’t deserve the accolade, and so revealing her profession to others is a dreadful task. To define impostor syndrome, Rachel Wells from Forbes writes ‘It is a psychological pattern in which individuals consider themselves a fraud and feel unworthy to occupy a space or fill a role, regardless of the fact that their education skills and experience prove the opposite.’  

When you have impostor syndrome you might second guess your skills and attribute your achievements to luck. Reinforcing such negative self-beliefs leads to low self-esteem, anxiety and perfectionism, ultimately limiting our own potential.

Cheri Beranek of Entrepreneur states: ‘Often, imposter syndrome is an internal experience of intellectual or professional inadequacy.  For women, the biases and stereotypes in the workplace can foster and exacerbate those feelings of not belonging.’

Meanwhile Eileen, contrasting Alice’s cynicism, hopelessly yearns for connection and writes ‘After all, when people are dying on their deathbeds, don’t they always start talking about their spouses and children? Isn’t death just the apocalypse in the first person?’. This is Rooney’s most optimistically nihilistic novel. Why are we so obsessed with fiction, art, worship and finding meaning if none of that is worth it at the end? Rooney’s world keeps turning even though her characters can’t find a concrete answer to the kind of questions we are also grappling with without being cheesy.

Alice and Eileen’s non-stop rambling about morality, vanity, white privilege and performativity did feel repetitive to some critics after already reading over these points once, but they simply pass as filler conversations. The main point of Sally Rooney novels is not ‘having moral superiority’ as many mistakenly judge. As cliché as it sounds, it’s about constantly thinking about your space in this world. As everyone has ever done or continue to do.

This doesn’t mean small details can be ignored. In the end Alice and Felix’ arcs, individually and as a couple, feel incomplete and rushed. It’s hard to comprehend the flash-forward we are left with when it’s just out of place, which is a simple ‘We all have our flaws and forgiveness is key.’

#1 – Normal People

Is Sally Rooney Worth Your Time? Rating Normal People, Conversations with Friends, and Beautiful World Where Are You? | Rock & Art
Photo by Vulture

It might be my own bias because I took the plunge and dived into the Rooney-verse with Normal People, but I saved the best for the last. Normal People describes a coming-of-age story of two Sligo natives Marianne and Connell, whose lives are entangled even when they don’t want to.

As she famously mentions in interviews, Rooney adds class status as a part of social complications, lying underneath her characters’ miscommunication issue. She often chooses a university setting to unpack class consciousness further, where many people from different cities, groups or communities are brought together. In Normal People, imposter syndrome correlates with class, as working class Connell is unfair to himself and feels inadequate compared to upper class Marianne and his other classmates, whose families also have an intellectual upper-class background, in Trinity College Dublin. Whereas Marianne mulls over the idea that she doesn’t deserve the accolade from her academic superiors because she already has a high-standing in the society.

‘Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so that he could copy from example.’

But their story is so much more than a bland upper & lower class romance. Meticulously curating two distinct mindsets, Rooney pens how it feels to be an outsider and the fear of non-conformity with exceptional precision. Chapters dedicated respectively to Connell and Marianne perfectly compliment each other as the story shifts from the town they are carefully isolated in, to the capital city of Dublin. You wholeheartedly end up rooting for Marianne and Connell, wondering where they’ll end up until the end. 

As they grow up and become college students, Marianne and Connell’s disturbingly accurate inner monologues touched many readers, but also viewers of the BBC screen adaptation of the same name. 

‘In just a few weeks’ time Marianne will live with different people, and life will be different. But she herself will not be different. She’ll be the same person, trapped inside her own body. There’s nowhere she can go that would free her from this.’

Is Sally Rooney Worth Your Time? Rating Normal People, Conversations with Friends, and Beautiful World Where Are You? | Rock & Art
Connell and Marianne in Episode 8. Photo by Apollo

Sally Rooney digs out traits and feelings tens of thousands do not wish to talk about, or can’t even properly translate them into words. Those bittersweet words feel fresh in the age of book reading challenges, and propel you to take your time digesting what you have just read. That is why many readers hold Rooney novels ever so dearly.

Cover photo by People