By Rory Collins
Sally Rooney has secured herself as my favorite author for the past year now, and I am certain as her career grows so will my obsession with her beautiful works of fiction. Every book of hers has left me thoughtful, shocked, and ultimately in awe of Rooney as an author and how she can craft a story about even the most basic of plots. Every time I finish a novel of hers, I crave more, and now I have finally read all four of her published works. Sally Rooney has written (in order) the following stories: Mr. Salary, Conversations With Friends, Normal People, and Beautiful World, Where Are You? As an adoring reader of all four of these novels, I feel the need to share my opinions on each of them to heighten my recommendations. Each of my reviews for all of her books are below, and please be warned of spoilers as well.
Let us start with her first published work, Mr. Salary. Mr. Salary is a 30-page short story that Rooney wrote in 2016 before publishing her first full-length novel, Conversations with Friends. It is a sweet and simple story of a young woman living with an older family friend with whom she has an oddly platonic yet debatably sexual relationship. The story follows the woman, Sukie, and her ongoing thoughts on her own father, her roommate (Nick), and how to navigate life as a 20-something-year-old. I enjoyed this little story and how filled with description it was. We as readers felt connected to the characters in such a short span of time, not knowing their backstories and not really needing to.
Rooney’s voice is also abundantly clear in all her writing, and since Mr. Salary was her first “real” piece of published literary work, we get to see how it has grown and matured over time. Though, no work of art comes without criticism. Honestly, I think I would have liked this story better if it were longer. Obviously, the point of a short story is for it to be, well, short, but I really became interested in these characters after only thirty pages and wanted more of their backstory. Frankly, this is less of a criticism and more of a compliment to the novel for making me want more. I would generally give this novel 3.5-4 stars, perhaps it could be higher if the story were expanded upon, however it was an enjoyable and quick read.
Moving on to Conversation With Friends. This was Sally Rooney’s second story to win itself a Hulu series, which just premiered in the past year. Due to this also being her first published book, Conversations gains lots of criticism for not being as polished or mature as her other works. The main character is not extraordinarily likable, a bold choice by Rooney for being the first look into her character writing, and a lack of dialogue replaced by inner thoughts is not some people’s cup of tea when reading a book. However, I believe Rooney to have written this novel in a lovely way with descriptions that redeems her characters as well as shows her utter talent in playing with a reader’s feelings.
Though abjectly detestable at times, Frances is one of the most complicated main characters I have ever read the thoughts of. She struggles with insecurity, self-sabotage, and confusion about all relationships in her life. Honestly, she is pretty relatable (Rooney’s specialty). The reader follows Frances through an affair with a married man, Nick, and his wife’s reaction to the news. She is struggling with keeping this secret to herself with no advice through the novel, as she has not told her roommate/ex-girlfriend Bobbi, causing her to spiral a bit about said relationship. This book enters the realm of open marriages, polyamorous relationships, and queerness in a way I had never seen in mainstream media before. These acts of sexuality are normalized and praised in the novel, breaking the boundaries of literature within just the first book of a new writer. Conversations With Friends truly set Sally Rooney up for success. I would give it 4 stars exactly, minus 1 solely due to comparison of her other novels to this one.
Most likely a recognizable name to most avid fiction readers, Normal People is a gorgeous novel that roped me right in during the first chapter. Each page turn brings more emotion than the last, depicting real and difficult relationships that stem from the relatable mind of Sally Rooney. This book is Rooney’s sophomore novel and her most popular. In the past few years, it has cultivated its own Hulu show starring Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as the main characters, Marianne and Connell. Both the show and book earned Rooney many awards, including an Irish Film & Television Award for best drama, an Emmy nomination for best writing, and the award for British Book of the Year.
Due to the popularity of the novel on social media, specifically Twitter and TikTok, this is most likely the first Rooney work readers will indulge in (myself included.) The story opens on a high school Marianne and Connell, two polar opposites on the social system who end up starting a fling. We follow them through the ups and downs of a “taboo” high school relationship between the “weird girl” and “cool guy” until they lose touch before both leaving for Trinity College in Dublin. They ultimately reconnect into a more codependent and closer relationship once in college, where Marianne is now considered “cool” while Connell is having trouble with his lack of social life at this new school. The novel goes through years and years of their one-and-off romantic/platonic relationship leaving the reader on edge and rooting for the character’s communication on what they mean to each other. The book eventually ends on a cliffhanger, with no confirmation from Rooney on what happens next for these two “Normal People.”
I read this book all in one sitting, for as my emotional connection to the characters grew, I felt I knew them in real life. Each of their issues felt like one of my own, I was so invested and enthralled by their own “normal” world. The book does not speak on anything that could not happen to a real human being, hence the title, and that is definitely one of the draws for readers of high school age and up who have been in similar situations to those of the characters. Personally, I would have loved for Rooney to expand more on the high school years of Connell and Marianne to establish even more of their relationship before college, however, it is understandable that their college years are the main focus. This book ranges from the 4-5 star range for me, definitely a must-read for fiction fans everywhere.
Her third full-length paperback, Beautiful World, Where Are You? may be some of Rooney’s best work. The story follows Alice, a famed writer, and her best friend Eileen from their different lives in separate parts of Ireland. They are both entangled with different men named Simon and Felix respectively and update each other on their lives virtually. The emails between Eileen and Alice were nothing short of thought-provoking and were written in such a stunning way that put me in a trance for pages on end. I love Rooney’s style and the way she chose to switch between 3rd and 1st person from chapter to chapter, and I especially love that this switch was done using emails as the medium.
Now, though I love Sally Rooney and usually relate to her female characters, I have to ask why every female character she writes seems to exist solely for the male gaze. I mean, the characters themselves may not be hyper-sexualized, but when it comes to romance and sex within the novels the characters always turn to “innocent and willing” girls who will do anything for a man. I don’t think any woman is like that in real life or wants to read that, so why would a female author continuously write her characters this way? It truly baffles me a bit, but I did see an improvement throughout the novel regarding Eileen and her need to please Simon.
I would say I enjoyed the ending enough, but it did feel a little cheap to end with pregnancy and bring in real-world issues of today. I, and I assume many others, don’t want to read about the pandemic! I also feel that Eileen’s pregnancy felt like a lazy way to end the story. If the novel had ended two chapters earlier I think I would have preferred it, but I am a sucker for a good happy ending. I mean, I am a hopeless romantic and though I may not have liked Felix and Alice or Eileen and Simon for most of the book…. is it too teenager-y to say I’m giddy over the fact that they end up together in the end? Overall, this is an amazing novel (though with a few minor issues) and I cannot wait to see what Rooney produces next.