“I watched summer die and autumn turn cold and gray through a broken slat in the blinds.” Henceforth begins the year-long “hibernation” of Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator in her newest novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” This Ivy League graduate uses the inheritance left by her father, who died of cancer, and mother, who soon after committed suicide, to pay for a nice apartment. Through an eccentric therapist, she acquires a slew of pills to help her sleep, and besides visits from her college roommate Reva, the narrator is left alone to her thoughts, her sleep, and her VCR. Moshfegh’s prose is captivating and this novel asks some of life’s big questions. The writing, however, does not make up for the lack of a cohesive plot.
The characters are unlikeable, but they’re supposed to be. The narrator herself is clearly struggling with mental health, yet often her thoughts about others are cruel while her thoughts about herself are kind. She continuously reminds the reader of her beauty: She can’t help if “people were always telling [her she] looked like Amber Valletta” or reminding her how pretty she is. Yet simultaneously, she describes her best (and only) friend as “a slave to vanity and status” and finds “her desperation especially irritating.” Reva suffers from bulimia, but instead of sympathizing with her friend, the narrator is annoyed at Reva’s impulses and even imagines “Reva would gasp if she saw all the food [she] was throwing out, as if eating it all and vomiting it back up wasn’t just as wasteful.” Although Reva has many redeeming qualities—she does, after all, still check in on the narrator despite never receiving any emotional support in return—they are hard to see through the lens of the narrator. The narrator’s therapist, Dr. Tuttle, is quite odd. At the first appointment, “she wore a foam neck brace because of a ‘taxi accident’ and was holding an obese tabby, whom she introduced as ‘my eldest.’” It is a wonder Dr. Tuttle is allowed to practice: She often forgets key facts of the narrator’s life, such as her parents’ deaths, and writes prescriptions for the narrator for over 10 drugs without any proper diagnosis. Although initially the unprofessional and odd behavior is funny, the flippant way Dr. Tuttle practices medicine quickly becomes alarming.
Although the likeability of the characters is not necessary for a good book, it poses a particular problem for a character-driven novel. There are very few events within Moshfegh’s storyline, so character development is essentially the story itself. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to care for most of these characters and this dulls their possible emotional effect and the story’s overall ability to make a lasting impact.
Regardless, Moshfegh has written a book that examines what it means to live a happy life. Are we really living if we don’t remember what we did? When the narrator wakes up three days after taking a pill with no memories and 12 boxes of Chinese food lined up on her kitchen table, the reader can’t help but ask this question. This book questions what it means to live a fulfilling life, what happiness even is, and how we look at those with mental illness.
Despite the novel’s faults, it is still a thought-provoking piece of literature. The prose, just barely, drives along the story even when there is very little story to tell. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” will leave you frustrated, but it will also make you think.
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew