Sally Rooney Is Timeless, Not ‘Millennial’

But, of course, it is in Rooney’s delivery of those perspectives — Alice’s and Felix’s, and, later, Eileen’s and Simon’s — that the magic happens.

Rooney’s third novel is similar to her previous work in that the focus is interpersonal relationships. Alice is sleeping with Felix and Eileen is sleeping with Simon. Alice and Eileen are best friends living apart, writing to one another via email about their relationships with Felix and Simon. Their friendship provides the framework for everything else — and though that “everything else” is expansive — Beautiful World is, to borrow Alice’s phrasing (who acts as something like Rooney’s avatar in the novel), ultimately a story about sex and friendship.

I would, without hesitation, describe Beautiful World as a page turner.

And yet, despite its readability, Beautiful World is smart — and herein lies the problem with its categorization as a “millennial novel” (and, for that matter, Rooney’s categorization as a “millennial writer”). Like her 19th-century predecessors with whose work Rooney shares an exacting eye for social observation and critique (I am thinking, especially, of Jane Austen), Rooney has been thrust into a category that, in my opinion at least, devalues her intellectualism. To be sure, there are millennial trappings. Alice and Eileen communicate primarily via email. Alice and Felix meet on Tinder. Eileen spends a fair amount of time internet stalking her ex-boyfriend and his new, influencer girlfriend. Of the four characters, Simon is arguably the least millennial — but his idealism, belief in God, and general declination to engage in “millennial behaviors” makes him a lightning rod for skepticism and ridicule. At one point, Eileen attends Sunday Mass with Simon and observes with amazement that he “wasn’t embarrassed for himself, to be caught in the act of worshipping a supreme being I didn’t believe in.”

But if you set aside the trappings (and frankly, you shouldn’t, because they’re incredibly well done), Rooney’s novel is sociopolitical criticism at its finest.

If there are readers avoiding Rooney because the hype has given her the appearance of being trendy or non-substantive, those readers are missing out. Similarly, if there are readers avoiding Rooney because they assume the content of her novels is limited in relevance to a particular age group or time frame, those readers are also missing out (again, if you must label her, it is more accurate to think of Rooney as a 19th-century writer “dressed up in contemporary clothing”).

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Wynter K Miller

Wynter K Miller

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Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California. @wynterkm