This review was originally published on Disabled World. First it was mostly written on Goodreads where I then proceeded to change my mind about sharing it because it was becoming largely about my stepdaughter who had recommended the book to me and wanted to read my review, so I kept my review private and she read it and said she'd like it published so I gave it another look and realized it was about the book but also about depression and eating disorders and mental health so I submitted it to Disabled World where it was accepted and published. There, now you know the history of this review. Oh, what's that? You weren't at all wondering? I see, I see, ummmm...
This review was originally published on Disabled World.
Seventeen and pretty, struggling with an eating disorder, family disruption (I am largely to blame in a scandalous way), and on the younger side of becoming herself with purpose, my stepdaughter declared, "I love this book. I really love the main character. She's who I want to be."
Lending me her copy of "My Year of Rest and Relaxation,"
one she purchased on a whim after declaring her adoration for the book and it's
main character, she reiterated, "While you're reading remember, I want to
be this girl."
So, my experience of reading "My Year of Rest and Relaxation" by Ottessa Moshfegh was split. I read it as a fan of novels highlighting self-realization and exploration, and I also read it as a lady who loves a young girl identifying strongly with a character. What made this particularly fun was how often one version of me would make a point to the other version of me while my thoughts about the story formed.
The story is of a young woman who sort of decides to fix her life by sleeping for a year. I say "sort of" because there isn't much of a plan besides sleep and sleep and sleep until she wakes up different. This, many of us must admit, has an appeal. Particularly if, as my stepdaughter points out, we could do it while being the narrator. Her parents, who she was not close to and who offered no affection and little guidance, have died. And though they didn’t give her much in the way of attention or love, they did give her things money could buy, and they left her enough to live more than a little bit comfortably. She's a pretty girl in pretty apartment with a pretty education and a pretty job. But life hurts and she's tired. So, she sleeps. A plan forms to keep sleeping, and the Universe gives her precisely what she asks of it: a therapist that will prescribe her all the drugs necessary to sleep. Throughout the novel the plan shows itself to be as terrible and dangerous as it sounds, and not really a plan at all. But near the end our narrator finally puts on her big girl panties (perhaps purchased during a drug induced blackout) and makes a true plan with a real goal. It is still sleep, but now it is with clarity and purpose and planning. Also, there is a time frame. This makes all the difference.
Both versions of me were engaged and moved by the book.
The me that is a reader: The sentences are deliciously devilish. I found it fun and fast to read, cutting and direct, darkly funny. Yet not without heart, not at all. There is a girl beating at the center of the story who has what seems like "it all" but life is sad and she's hurting. However, because she is smart, pretty, and wealthy, was not much loved as a child but not exactly abused either, it's almost as if even she can't take her own pain seriously. Her own pain, which is real and valid, stems partly from having grown up in an affection-less home and partly from living in a world that doesn't want to nourish someone as lucky as she. Her lack of love in childhood has, as it often will, given her a broken picker when it comes to romance and relationships. She finds a man that is just awful to her, and she uses him to be awful to her. He’s a place, at least, where her pain and suffering make sense.
She's mean. I suspect she wants to sleep partly to get away from her consistent smart-alec attitude and cruel comments. Cruel comments and inner dialogue that burst forth clearly as a way to prove to herself that she's fine and in control, that everyone else is not fine, and she just needs to sleep.
Seriously, she's quite mean. The vulnerable part of her she’s protecting is a little too well hidden.
One of the things I love most about reading is trying on the beliefs and perspectives of someone vastly different from myself, but I was exhausted by so much meanness. Yet, I get that our narrator was using that attitude as a tool to create her edges, and she may have risked disappearing altogether without it.
The me that is a stepmom: I was honored, impressed, and conflicted. I cared very much that my stepdaughter wanted to share this version of herself - who she feels she is and who she wants to be, even if only temporarily - with me. I absolutely saw a lot of what she saw. Growing up with what seems like “it all” yet struggling to feel cared for and cared about. Struggling to feel worthy of such caring. Lashing out now and then only to see if someone cares enough to find out why, or at least to lash back. I could also see clearly the allure of being pretty, smart, rich, and sleeping an entire year away while re-watching favorite movies over and over and over. For someone like my stepdaughter who is pretty and smart, who has always had a nice home and things, it would be easy to identify with the narrator. And though my stepdaughter is not mean, it is only because she chooses not to be. From what she’s told me, I believe the temptation exists in her.
Unlike the narrator, my stepdaughter spent a fair amount of her youth overweight and only recently, the past few years, has been skinny. Her experiences regarding her weight evolved into a need for skinny. She seeks it out in others, she craves it for herself, she feels things when looking at aesthetics that tell her a story of skinny. Skinny and depressed look pretty to her, and she likes pretty.
At the moment my stepdaughter is specifically struggling with an eating disorder. With anorexia and binge eating. Her struggle is not easily understood by those of us in the home, though we care. For my part, I keep making the mistake of trying to relate by thinking of my own desire to be thin or pretty, my own wish that delicious foods were never fattening, or that there was a trick for making them not fattening to me. But my attempts are largely in vain because she struggles differently. Her goals and reasons are different from mine and the insights I have are rarely useful and more often distract me from quite getting it. Eating disorders are frighteningly dangerous and extremely challenging. After all, we can't just say, "Never mind, we'll quit food all together." We can't just walk away as one might from an abusive relationship. We must find a way to make this work.
To make it worse, the world does value skinny and pretty, although it actually has no real value. It is so darn frustrating! I mean, I just sound like a naïve dummy who doesn’t live in the real world where everyone wears the right clothes, gets the right procedures, looks the right way, when I preach, “Be a healthy you in the body you have.” Duh, don’t I know that everyone else is doing the work of changing the bodies they have and not doing so will leave her in the dust? Arg.
Anyway, I think the narrator struggles similarly in the book. Being skinny and pretty all her life meant people congratulated her and made room for her based on that “value” but she’s smart, she knows it is not real enough. She’s lost and depressed. She’s struggling in similar ways as my stepdaughter. She doesn't have an eating disorder, though her friend does, but she is disordered. And the struggle is not one she can just walk away from. She must find a way to make her mind, her feelings, her choices, work with her rather than against her. And, at first, she doesn't really want to. Sure, she plays at wanting to, she even tinkers with believing she wants to, but in reality she's like a person wishing they could play the piano. Like a person seeing someone else play and thinking it would be cool if they could do that too. Not a want, but a wish. If they could have a montage, maybe they’d do it. However, this is how most of our true-life changes begin. So, it is good. With my stepdaughter, I think she's just a little beyond the beginning but not yet near the end.
The end, in the book, is where - just as things get nearly so bad we are hardly able to stay with her as an audience - she feels a change come over her, a real plan, a real desire to become different. The plan itself is unconventional, crazy even, and I love that. This book offers a fantastic example of how we won't make healthy changes if we don't really want to, how we often think we want the change but really don’t, yet pushing ourselves to want it is how we can get there, and how we can (and often should) enlist the help of others but - ultimately - we alone are the necessary ones. We do our best work when we're creative problem solvers, when we really mean it and have a clear goal or plan, and when we are okay with our lives actually becoming different even though we can't truly picture what that might look like for ourselves.
This is something I hope my stepdaughter liked too. I hope she finds her way to do what the narrator does, creatively problem solve with a true will for change, and I hope she finds it sooner rather than later. I know her and am entirely confident she has it in her. Her gift with sophisticated thinking can be both a weapon against herself and a tool of salvation. She knows this.
The narrator knew this.
Maybe because my stepdaughter has a strong desire to be like the narrator, she'll use that sophisticated thinking to create an effective plan of action for herself.
Maybe, also, because my stepdaughter has a desire to be even better than the people she emulates, she'll do it sooner and better.
In the meantime, I'll keep being the friend that tries her best to create a healthy environment, I'll drive my stepdaughter to appointments and rock out with her in the car, and I'll put the books she recommends at the top of my "to read" list.
If subsequent recommendations are as thought provoking (and sometimes simply provoking!) as "My Year of Rest and Relaxation," it will continue to be a course of action that matches the course I like my life to take: One that brings me new perspectives, particularly when those perspectives bring me closer to people I love.