Earlier in 2021 I came across several commentaries in the Jesuit journal America featuring the persona and writings of the Irish novelist Sally Rooney. America’s description of her was glowing. In reviewing her 2021 work Beautiful World, Where Are You? Cieran Freeman entitles his piece “Sally Rooney writes for millennials in a post-Catholic world” [October 15, 2021]. In the same week James T. Keenan penned for America “Sally Rooney isn’t just the ‘Snapchat Generation’s’ Catholic novelist (but she is that).” [October 19, 2021] And over in Catholic Commonweal, Anthony Domestico, in his year-end summary of 2021 fiction, writes “Lord knows the world doesn’t need more Rooney discourse, so I won’t add to it other than to say that this novel’s [Beautiful World] vision of beauty suffusing and sustaining the world was the most Catholic thing I read in fiction all year.” [December 14, 2021]
I do not read many novels, preferring non-fiction, and I started the Catholic Novel Stream of the Catechist Café to enrich myself as much as anyone. One of my problems is rebuilding a cultural ego after my English seminary professor told me to my face that I was an unlettered philistine. After I looked up the word philistine, I was deeply wounded, and I always felt [and still do] that I am at a cultural literary disadvantage even at this late age of my life. It does not help, either, that my favorite Catholic novelist, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels in his lifetime, twenty-five years apart.
Sally Rooney, by contrast, has written three extraordinarily successful novels by the age of thirty: Conversation with Friends ; Normal People  and Beautiful World, Where Are You? . All three works have won awards and sold immense copies while stirring considerable conversation in book circles about the challenges of contemporary life for the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts. Father Liam Power summarizes his impression of her body of work: “She has given us an insight into the issues that are troubling and challenging for the millennials and Generation Z. I must confess that I find it difficult to appreciate how that generation really feels about the deeper spiritual challenges that life throws at us. She pulls back the curtain for us. She at least raises the question of the presence of the Divine as a response to the angst or ennui, the restlessness and the search for meaning in a troubled world.” [November 16, 2021] Dublin’s Trinity College entry in Wikipedia cites the great authors who have graduated from the institution: Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Percy French, William Trevor, Sally Rooney, Oliver Goldsmith and William Congreve. Ms. Rooney stands in vaunted company.
I will look at the novels in a moment, but an introduction to the author herself is appropriate. Sally Rooney was born in 1991 in Castlebar, Ireland, and freely admits in her interviews that she remains a parochial Irish resident despite her fame and recent wealth. At Trinity College she excelled as a debater as well as a writer, and she began her first novel while a graduate student. In her self-deprecating humor in interviews, she states that given her limited world experience—home and college—she set her first two novels in those contexts, because this is the world she knew.
Born a Catholic, Rooney bears no great love for the institutional Church today. In this she shares considerable company with others in her generation. But Ireland is not exactly the United States. I am reminded of the Anna Karenina Principle which states that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Young Catholics or alienated Catholics in Ireland have somewhat different stresses with the institutional Church than their United States counterparts. In Ireland, given the intimacy of church and state over many generations, youthful reformers—mostly Catholic by birth--working toward economic justice and human rights have often found themselves at odds with their religious leadership as they attempt to address the recent spate of difficulties on the Emerald Isle. Ireland’s economy, which looked so promising at the turn of the century, has never recovered from the 2008 economic crash. Much of the burden of this enduring economic downturn has fallen precisely on the Millennial-Generation Z population, most of whom are well educated but frustrated by limited job opportunities.
Rooney identifies herself as a Marxist, but she is no Lenin or Trotsky. Rather, she is acutely aware of the shortcomings of the capitalist system and its inability to “self-correct,” so to speak. In her interviews she has expressed surprise and discomfort at the attention and particularly the money that has come her way with the success of her books. There is a strain in her thought that her money has come too easily while many who have worked harder have far less to show for their labors.
Given the author’s sympathies for a just society, one would think that the papacy of Pope Francis might get a good hearing for those of Rooney’s generation. However, the issue of abuse of minors and vulnerable populations has ravaged religion in Ireland in ways far greater than, say, the Cardinal McCarrick revelations in the U.S. in 2018. To grasp the religious dispositions of Rooney and her generations, one must understand “The Magdalene Laundries.” “Magdalene” is shorthand for the forced institutionalization of thousands of young Irish girls in religious reformatories without due process—most as victims of rape, incest, forced prostitution, illegitimate pregnancy, mental health issues, etc., a practice which began before 1900 and endured as late as 1996.
Put simply, “bad girls” as labeled thus by parents, police, social workers, and church personnel, were warehoused for the purposes of providing institutional laundering services and similar production. There was no secret about these institutions. Clients ranged from clergy to the Irish Army, and eventually private contracting became a source of revenue for the Church. James Joyce makes passing references to these institutions in several of his novels. The recent discovery of unmarked graves and the reluctance of some religious authorities to release records, as well as the state’s awkward ambivalence about making a full apology for its role in the enduring saga, has prolonged a sense of anger and alienation from the Irish Catholic Church, which has seen its influence and numbers drastically diminished in the twenty-first century. [I happened to be vacationing on Valencia Island, the westernmost tip of Ireland in 2015, and was present when the Church announced the closing of the two parishes on the island: Knightstown, where I was staying, and Chapeltown down the road.]
Rooney has commented on the Magdalene scandal as the “institutionalization of the unwanted” in Irish society. Her criticism of the Church has prompted comparisons to the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who in 1990 infamously tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on live TV, during an appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” What was not known or widely appreciated at the time was that O’Connor herself had spent eighteen months in a Magdalene Laundry for shoplifting as a teen. Rooney was born the year after O’Connor’s TV appearance became an international controversy, and thus she grew up in an environment where Catholic credibility was crumbling in her formative years.
This brings us to the essence of Rooney’s writings. Some may argue, I suppose, that calling Rooney a “Catholic” novelist is something of a stretch. However, I am not aware that her call for the Church to disengage from its unholy marriage with Irish politics is a disqualifying factor. Nor do I think her disillusionment with structural Catholicism is particularly disturbing. She has plenty of company there, on both sides of the Atlantic. Catholic novelists are not simply novelists who happen to be Catholic. They bring their experience of Catholic life and belief into their work product, whether that experience is positive or negative. What I see in Rooney’s writing is an effort to rebuild an ethic of love, meaning, and just relationships in the tangle of a rudderless society, or more succinctly, in an Irish culture that has been orphaned in some real sense by the failure of the Church of her origin and the onrush of a secularism that is more fuss than feathers.
Rooney’s novels are slices of life. There are no climactic finales like the Baptism scene in The Godfather in these novels. Rather, we are pulled into interpersonal dynamics with an ongoing captivating attraction that evokes strong reactions from the readers, or at least this was my experience of her second and third novels. Rooney’s first novel is Conversations with Friends . This is the novel I did not read, and I am attaching a review/synopsis here. My first venture with Rooney’s writing was Normal People . The plotline is quite simple, the story of a high school romance of sorts between Connell and Marianne that continues into college and early adulthood. When my wife asked me about the book halfway through my reading, I joked that it seemed like a cross between Catcher in the Rye and “The Gilmore Girls” [which we are presently binge watching.] As it turned out, I was not far wrong, for Normal People embodies the enormously complex chess game of youthful relationships from popularity to economics to sexual intimacy. [The HULU streaming service turned the book into a TV miniseries.]
Normal People does not belittle religion; it simply assumes its irrelevance. Given this vacuum, Connell and Marianne must reinvent the wheel and create an ethos to their relationship that is, at times, painful to behold. The reader can deduce the construction of relational rules and the consequences of when they are broken. In high school Connell is the alpha male and the heart throb of every girl on campus. Marianne, by contrast, is a Plain Jane with no friends. It is only by pure chance that they hook up. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house, and in a sequence of quick hellos they discover that rarest of adolescent mediums, actual conversation, stilted as it is. Marianne’s insecurity in this relationship is not assuaged by Connell’s fear of discovery—not by his mother, who advises him to use condoms—but by the student body, which would condemn his slumming around with an undesirable.
If anyone has lost belief in the reality of mortal sin, such belief will be quickly restored when Connell commits a biggie. As the prom comes up on the calendar, he disses Marianne and invites a class starlet, to keep up appearances. As a reader, this betrayal was a blow to the gut, and I wondered if this couple would/could ever survive this breech. But in some inexplicable way they soldier on into a new world where Marianne becomes a popular and accomplished collegian as Connell finds his old high school successes are insufficient for the brave new world of higher education. This reversal of roles brings its own generational challenges, but without spoiling the plot, I found the conclusion hopeful and satisfying. Connell steps up to the plate later in the book when the stakes are much higher, and the work closes with a sense that somehow both parties have achieved a measure of moral consciousness around friendship and respect.
Beautiful World, Where Are You?  takes us into the world of that 25–30-year-old window of life where adults begin to fret over what they have not yet accomplished—such as arriving at a satisfying and sustaining philosophy of meaning, and successful coupling. The plot line is uncomplicated: the heroines are Alice, a successful novelist, and her best friend from school days, Eileen, who labors away as a proofreader. Some reviewers see the Alice character as an autobiographical projection of Rooney herself, for Alice has made a bundle from her success but is clearly discontent. Both women are looking for life partners though they adopt different strategies for the hunt.
Rooney adopts an intriguing literary device into this novel: the narrative is interspersed with lengthy emails between Alice and Eileen. I found these interjections intriguing, as they serve as a window to how each writer interprets the events of their lives in the expanse of a lengthy email letter. Much of the email correspondence, particularly in the early going, is the philosophical exchange one used to hear in coffee houses on college campuses: the search for a philosophical system to make sense out of a scrambled twenty-first century with its economic and social injustices. As the book progresses, the correspondents begin to question the honesty and the efficaciousness of their intellectual strategizing and begin a very subtle shift toward a more existential and practical approach to their life dilemmas.
Alice, in a state of exhaustion and mental health issues, rents an old rectory in the countryside for something of a sabbatical. She uses an online dating app and meets Felix, a blue-collar worker in an Amazon-like warehouse. This union of a rich novelist with a day laborer produces colorful exchanges, as one might expect. It also produces what I would call “a politicization of sex” as both partners seem to jockey around their intimacies as a barometer of their general relationship. There is a fair amount of explicit sex in this novel, but as I joked to a good friend who also read the book, “they kind of talk it to death.”
Eileen, for her part, knows exactly whom she wants, her friend Simon, five years her senior whom she has known since childhood. The problem here is that Simon is in no hurry for a commitment. He is content with his work in a social reform bureaucracy. He also happens to be a devout Catholic. To the degree that after finally bedding Eileen for a long night of bliss, he announces in the morning that he is attending his parish’s 9 AM Mass. Eileen tags along and witnesses Simon’s devotion to the parts of the Mass. After Mass, she asks him if, during the penitential rite, he was seeking forgiveness for their activities of a few hours earlier. Simon assures her that he had not; a spot-on unintended commentary on the religious/sexual mores of the generations behind me.
It is also intriguing that Jesus of Nazareth enjoys several cameo appearances in this work. I found hope in this. At several points as the book progresses the two email correspondents begin to question their quests for answers from nineteenth and twentieth century philosophers and haltingly begin to speculate about Jesus. Both respect that he delivered a good message for the world and seemed to resonate with their concerns for a more just society. Neither is quite ready to “buy the resurrection from the dead” thing. The author, certainly, and the novel’s two women characters, must have learned about “the resurrection thing” in their youth in Ireland. How did they lose it, or what convinced them to abandon the key tenet of Catholic faith? What I would not give to invite both Alice and Eileen to a coffee shop and ask them about their faith journeys.
I am going to return to Rooney’s works for a second entry on this blog stream, this one to discuss her works from a Catholic catechetical and evangelical perspective. I should add here that Rooney’s novels are appropriate for adults who freely wish to take them up. I would not recommend them for use in parish sponsored programs, as the story lines contain “R” material and language. That said, it does seem that these novels are widely read across all generations. Again, for parents/catechists/church ministers, Rooney’s writing provides helpful insight into the challenges of cross-generational dialogue.
CATHOLIC NOVELISTS and the BOOKS THEY WRITE