There was a moment, ten years ago, when E.L James’s erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey came out and every other subway rider appeared to be head down in the gray-and-black cover, their eyes greedily soaking up each horny, softcore, vanilla-adjacent fantasy. Seeing someone reading the book in public always made for a mixture of excitement and embarrassment, like the secret was finally out that women — and older women at that — had long-looming bondage desires and didn’t care who knew it. This was a book very plainly about sex, and unlike the steamier romance novels of the past, it was meant to be seen outside the bedroom. Part of the thrill was belonging to a community of readers who didn’t mind flashing the grainy cover around town.
The same could be said for the most hotly anticipated book of the fall, a novel so sought after that early galleys ended up on resale sites and incited jealousy and ire when their bright-blue covers popped up on the Instagrams of certain critics and influencers. This is also a book that’s meant to be seen — albeit on social media rather than the subway — and despite the literary coding, it’s also a book about sex. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney’s third novel, follows best friends Alice and Eileen through their journeys toward something approximating fulfillment. They each attempt to carve out their sense of self and place in the world through their relationships with each other and with Felix and Simon, the lingering men in their lives.
Where Fifty Shades was almost laughably earnest in its descriptions of desire, foreplay, and intercourse, the Rooney brand of lust is cerebral, detached, and centred on longing. It doesn’t shy away from sex or the build-up to sex, as evidenced by the flushed faces of anyone poring over Normal People. And though both books ultimately tangle with how to indulge in fringe and fantasy while staying within the confines of an otherwise tame, heteronormative relationship, the excitement and titillation in Rooney’s novels comes just as much from the rangy banter as the lithe, entangled bodies.
For example, take this scene about a third of the way into Beautiful World, Where Are You. After some tentative flirting following her breakup, Eileen cautiously initiates phone sex with her friend Simon. Her stilted seduction involves a fictional wife who will take off Simon’s tie and shirt and fastidiously put them away. “You’re so neat, said Eileen. That’s one thing the wife loves about you.” “Why, is she a neat person herself?” answers Simon. “Hm. She’s not really sloppy or anything, but she’s not as neat as you are. Are you undressed now?” Eileen asks. Simon sheepishly asks her if he can put the phone down to undress, and she answers with a “shy self-conscious smile.” It’s hardly bodice-ripping phone sex, but it perfectly captures the awkwardness of Rooney’s particular form of foreplay. Eileen works through her own desires for stability and monogamy even as she struggles with what those desires mean to the rest of her life. As she dances around her feelings for Simon, she plays with a rigidly normal mode of roleplay that lets her exercise these conflicts through sex.
The sensual appeal in a book like Beautiful World lies in the straightforwardness of the characters’ longing and need for each other, but also in the honesty of their hangups, in the way they admit to everything that keeps them from tearing each other’s clothes off. Their entire being, but particularly their sexuality, is wrapped up in their thoughts about themselves and how they’re reflected in the world around them.
For millennials and Gen-Zers who experience courtship through terse exchanges on dating apps or hastily sent astrology memes, it makes sense that the literary sex they’re drawn to is anxious, frank, and unwavering. Especially now, after a year and a half of trying to date virtually or navigate casual sex during a pandemic, of course young people are horny for the kind of romance that’s built on the neurotic ramblings of other confused young people barfing out their ambitions and desires and fuck-ups on the first date, weaving lengthy, sorrowful postcoital webs about who they are and who they wish they could be. It’s aspirational fucking: Maybe if we read it, it will come, this partner so many of us seek who can help us navigate modern life through honesty, intelligence, and sinewy abs.
And much like the fiction of E.L. James, there is a sense of comfort in the normalcy of it all. Eileen has to invent a fictional, doting wife, a homemaker, to initiate virtual sex with Simon. “You need a little wife for yourself,” she tells him before asking him to get undressed. Even when Rooney’s characters toy with fetish, experimenting with pain and control like Normal People’s Marianne, there is still a call to traditional partnership, a need to do so within the safety of hetero monogamy. And despite the overanalyzing between Eileen and Simon, fraught couples like them still get married, have babies and make a go of it. Simplicity often reigns supreme between Rooney’s heroes and heroines. At the end of the day, their love and lust is usually ordinary in its goals.
Perhaps this is what her characters’ neuroticism and overthinking is about: covering up the sheer banality of their ultimate desires. Rooney’s women in particular are intelligent, fiercely ambitious people who ache to carve out a special place for themselves in the world, to leave a mark through their work. It can be difficult, even painful to admit in the face of that that they lust with equal intensity after the trappings of monogamy and everything that brings with it.
The idea of seeking truth in our romances, of demanding what we want and even getting it, is appealing, especially in an era of fuckboys and confusing, middling hook-ups and semi-relationships. Even when she toys with that kind of uniquely modern dating with Alice and Felix, they both give each other far more tenderness and emotional honesty than any of us who’ve swiped right on a regular basis are used to. Sure, Alice might venture out in a hurricane to meet up with a first date who makes her pay for her own drinks, but she’d at least force him to explain himself in excruciating, self-flagellating detail.
Ultimately, we know what we’re getting when it comes to desire and lust in Rooney’s novels, and there’s something to be said for wearing our sexual desires so nakedly on our sleeves — or book jackets, in this case. It’s nice to know that what we all really crave is some bracing, witty conversation and a good fuck.