Book Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
TW: drug use, mentions of suicide/self harm, bulimia
Overview: While we don't know the protagonist's name, nothing in her inner world is off limits as Moshfegh probes through the life of a grief stricken, isolated young woman in New York City at the end of the year 2000. After graduating from Columbia, the protagonist wanders through life halfheartedly working in an art gallery, seeing a man who is generally disinterested in her, and only offered companionship by a best friend she hardly likes. As her life slowly spirals downwards, she starts coasting on her inheritance from her parents' estate and decides to employ a psychiatrist with shaky morals to give her enough drugs to sleep through the next year of her life. Maybe if she can finally, truly rest, she'll be able to recalibrate her life on the other side into something far better than the current drudgery. Overall: 3.5
Characters: 4 The main character is classically unlikeable but not annoying to sit with. She's spoiled and callous on the surface, but it doesn't take much to realize why she's taken up this outlook and empathize with her. Nothing has quite worked out right in her life, and as a result, nothing has provided much fulfillment. She didn't seem all that pleased with her time at Columbia, and her brief foray into working was pretty fruitless. She doesn't seem to have the least idea about what she'd like to do with her life and has no sense of purpose. Though her parents are both dead now, she was never close with either one and has never seemed to have a close or rewarding interpersonal relationship. It becomes quickly apparent why she's decided to just shut out the world despite having all the privilege in the world on the exterior. Still, she rings flat at times as a character because of her clearly deep depression and utter refusal to look at life from any other angle than the reductive story she's set for her life. Though she does reemerge at the end of the book, presumably to make a new effort at life, don't expect marked growth.
Reva, her best friend, is another example of a young woman whose life has gone completely not to plan. She doesn't have the safety net and luxuries that the protagonist often takes for granted, and she does have an adult job and responsibilities. But Reva is deeply unhappy in a secret affair with her married boss, dealing with the eminent death of her mother, and battling an intense pattern of disordered eating spurred on by the ever-present expectation to be runway model thin. Reva's physical insecurities often dominate her mind, presumably as a way to distract from her mental pain of a life played out in a disappointing fashion. Reva and the main character are friends more by circumstance, having met in college and still lacking better options. They're bonded by the time they've already spent together, not by having anything remotely in common. And the story of Reva and the protagonist might be the most compelling in the book. A story of a slow break-up, a changing dynamic for a changing phase of life. While you can empathize with the main character, Reva is the one you genuinely feel bad for.
Throughout the book, there are a handful of other characters that flit in and out of frame. Her annoying boss at the art gallery and the eccentric, prized artist who creates awful and avant-garde art installations. Her psychiatrist who never listens to the main character's quiet cry for help and is all too happy to give away every pill ever manufactured. The men at the corner store who patiently keep a tab when she buys things in her blackouts without ever paying. Trevor, the man she's been seeing for years who starts dating someone else. And her doorman, the one person who you get the sense might honestly care for her. It's a small world, but each of these characters gain tiny bits of nuance with each repeat interaction. The characters are what make this book worth reading.
Plot: 3 This is a challenging premise for a book in the first place considering that the protagonist's most pressing goal in life is to sleep as much as possible. And it's hard to really advance the plot when you're comatose. For that reason, a lot of the book feels a bit like a laundry list of updates. Name the combination of 10 pills you're taking on the regular, do laundry, clean up after the last blackout, and then drift back out of the world for another three days. This goes on for chapters and chapters, and when the spiral is a little less tight, that same set of repetitions also includes going to the corner store for black coffee and down to her eccentric psychiatrist's office.
Sometimes, almost as a treat, Moshfegh will delve into a background story of her relationship with her parents, with her sorta boyfriend, Trevor, with her best friend, Reva, or her doomed attempt to work at an art gallery. Those pieces are really interesting, thought provoking, and illuminating about who this character is under her heaps of apathy and defensive sarcasm. But they are few and far between. While I understand making the reader go through this monotony with her as a literary device, it also just gets boring and tiresome after a while, if you want to view the book as entertainment over art. It's a modern classic for a reason. It shares a commonality with the books you're forced to read in school in using devices that make their point through a nearly painful amount of showing and other craft tricks but also sometimes loses its meaning in the pretentious feeling.
Writing: 4 If I'm being honest, I think this book is overhyped. I've only ever heard glowing reviews from anyone who's mentioned it. I can see why, but I just struggle to heap so much praise onto a book that took me a month and a half to finish. Sure, I was busy and didn't have a ton of time to read, but this book never once made me want to make time to read. It was so repetitive that opening the book felt like another slog through more meh days with this character with little at the end of the journey. It was hard to find what was so compelling about it. Now that I've finished reading it, I can appreciate its contemplative meditation on what the value of life is and its use of literary devices to make a point, but it wasn't what I would call a fun reading experience. Certainly, not every book has to be, but the defining feeling this book left me with was emptiness. In a way, the entire exercise of the story all felt like it was for nothing at the conclusion of the book. Usually, sad or unfinished endings are my favorite, but after a story as bleak and sometimes bland as this one, I just wanted more of a statement on what it was all for. Nothing, I guess. It's simply a portrait of one girl's depressive spiral in early 2000s New York, and life doesn't offer any grand or mystical meanings, but also, I live life every day. I turn to books to assign meaning to it.
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