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What the critics liked
It’s easy to hate how popular Sally Rooney is, says Anne Enright in The Guardian. Since 2017 the Irish writer has sold more than three million novels, cracked America and adapted both her books for television – all by the age of 30. No wonder people are jealous. And there’s bad news for the Rooney naysayers: her third book, Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber £16.99), is just as brilliant.
The story follows four Irish millennials: Eileen, a smart but struggling writer; Simon, her left-wing lover; Felix, a beautiful and moody warehouse worker; and his girlfriend, Alice, a literary superstar who worries she has “only had two good ideas”. Alice is a handy vehicle for moaning about fame, but Rooney is at her “coolest” when she’s writing about love. These are the best sex scenes around, “with her distinctive choreography of the gaze, and of the breath, and a mighty precision about what-goes-where”. The last third, when the four characters meet, is extraordinary. “The dialogue never falters and the prose burns up the page.”
I’m not especially moved by this dour tale of “young women with large brains, small bodies and highly developed theories about the exploitative economy”, says Johanna Thomas-Corr in The Sunday Times. Standout lines include “I suppose I’m very unhappy” and “It’s very difficult”. What’s more, it’s a carbon copy of her last two books. About 50 pages in, “I began wondering if I was reading the first literary novel written by machine intelligence”. I imagine her editors sticking books one and two into a shiny new contraption, “pressing a few buttons and producing a third Rooney to order”.
On the contrary, this is Rooney’s best book yet, says James Marriott in The Times. Everyone calls her a millennial sensation – JD Salinger for the Snapchat generation – but Beautiful World, Where Are You is strikingly old-fashioned. Essentially, the novel is a quiet look at relationships and all the clutter that comes with them. Near the end, two characters embrace at an ugly countryside railway station. They’re so enamoured that they don’t notice anything around them – not the man sneezing, the billboard turning or the plastic bottle rolling across the platform. It’s perfect. “And, you think, the novel would not be beautiful or serious without all those things in it: sincerity, absurdity, love, beauty and the ordinary trash and trivia of everyday life.”
When Justine Picardie was granted access to the Dior archives, she thought she would write about its founding fashion designer, Christian, says Jackie Annesley in The Sunday Times. “But the ‘ghost’ of his much loved sister bewitched her.” Catherine was a member of the French Resistance – she joined in 1941 after falling in love with a (married) member, Hervé des Charbonneries. In July 1944 she was seized and tortured by the Nazis. One month later she was on the last train out of Paris to Ravensbrück, a women-only concentration camp. The resulting story, Miss Dior (Faber £25), is a “Netflix-worthy” and “page-turning” biography about “a woman who appeals beyond the boundaries of Planet Fashion”.
Catherine was fearless, says Artemis Cooper in the TLS. Ravensbrück was “a place of misery, typhus, starvation, floggings, brutal guards and crippling experimental operations”, but in her six months there she maintained her self-respect. If an SS guard threw food on the ground, she would not fall and pick it up. “She said if you did that, your life was over.” By the time she escaped in 1945, she was so thin that Christian didn’t recognise her. “He had prepared a celebration dinner but she was too sick, too shattered to enjoy it.”
Thankfully, the later chapters of her life were happier. She was reunited with Hervé, now separated from his wife, and they moved to the south of France and sold flowers. Christian stayed in Paris, busy establishing what is now a fashion house worth billions. It is strange to read about the brother’s luxurious couturier’s lifestyle with Catherine’s horrors haunting the background. “But the juxtaposition of terrible shadows and dazzling light is one of the great strengths of this book.”
Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by the author.