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Why Sally Rooney’s latest left me a bit cold … and old

It’s hard to resist Sally Rooney’s books of youthful love, lust and friendship. Somehow, the 31-year-old writer perfectly captures a point in time when emotions are big and raw and experience is fresh.

There is a sense of risk coupled with the potential for great reward, all hinging on personal relationships, whether romantic or platonic.

I can imagine that it would be thrilling to read these books as a twenty-something who is navigating the same emotional world.

And while I also love reading Rooney’s books, despite having long passed my twenties, I can’t help feeling that something is lost for me in reading about this past stage of life.

I have been thinking about what that might be.

It crossed my mind that perhaps it is that, as I have passed this point in my own life, I am missing the opportunity to learn through these books. In books like Rooney’s, I’m glimpsing an alternative way of being in the world, but without the potential to put what I learn into practice – it’s as if I’m reading them too late to help me navigate their world.

Often, part of the reason why I love to read is to see the choices the characters make, and wonder what I would have done, learning from the results of their choices. It is a kind of warning of the mistakes that might result from one decision, which the reader can avoid in the future.

In a masterclass on writing, Neil Gaiman discussed the way books can help teach people how to live, starting with the fairytales of childhood.

“You tell a child the story of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and there are lots of takeaways from that story. But one of the takeaways that is always taken is, you know, there are people out there who may not mean you well. There are people out there, who when they say, where are you going, what are you doing, you may not want to tell them. That might get your grandmother eaten. Might get you eaten. There are people it is best to avoid. Some– some people– some wolves are hairy on the inside, and some wolves are hairy on the outside, and perhaps, you’re best keeping yourself safe.”

While it is not the only role of reading, I feel that adults can also find lessons on living through literature.

However, in reading about youthful romance and the complexities of the social lives of 20-somethings, I feel quite removed, having passed that stage of life many years ago. Thankfully, I am no longer in the dating game, and children have provided me with even further distance from the romantic games that young people endure (and even enjoy).

Even the emails between friends in Beautiful World, Where Are You? left me feeling a little unenthused. I remember similar correspondence in which each party would try to be as clever and profound as possible (and managed to be far less clever and profound that Rooney’s characters), and had to suppress my middle-aged cynicism.

Interestingly, I don’t feel the same way when I read books written from the perspective of a child. I wholeheartedly loved all of Sofie Laguna’s books that imagine the experience of children.

It might be that, as a parent, I see much to be learnt from these books, reminding me of what it is like to be a child. Or that I feel intimately familiar with this stage of life as my own children move through it.

My ambivalence about Rooney’s latest book might also have been the self-absorption of the characters in these books that I found off-putting and hard to learn from, unless in a cautionary way. Please help me from being so distracted by my own navel. Although perhaps this is in itself a condition of being in your early twenties, and one that I am happy to leave behind.

All of this is not to say that there is nothing at all to learn in books that deal with young adult angst. I am fascinated by the interpersonal relationships at play, and marvel at the things that have changed since I was the same age.

I don’t even mind the inflated emotions as I can well remember the drama to be found in the smallest comment or most fleeting of looks, which I remember from when I was at the same stage of life.

And in a way, perhaps these books are providing me with lessons that will be useful, and will make me more sensitive to and tolerant of my own children’s whims when they reach the same stage.

It can only stand me in good stead if they reach the same levels of self-absorption as Rooney’s characters in Beautiful Life, Where Are You?

And if I want to learn how to, or how not to, live, I’ll stick with Olive Kitteridge or a middle-aged Anne Tyler heroine as they tackle all the complexities of life once they’ve passed those tempestuous mid-twenties years.

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