My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottesa Moshfegh
Well, it’s a while since I read a book that I disliked so thoroughly, but felt compelled to read to the end! This book is all sex and drugs, but no rock’n’roll.
I’d felt put off reading it before by the ‘school of David’ painting on the cover – I couldn’t tell whether the young woman in the painting was wistful or just bored. I’d decided she was bored, and that the book might bore me too, but, since its selection on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, I read it for the team, so to speak.
It follows the life of one young woman in New York, who is insulated from having to work by her inheritance. An only child, she is now an orphan. Left alone, she decides to hibernate, literally, rather than face up to life. She dupes her psychiatrist into prescribing every pill in the manual to help with with her feigned insomnia. (Dr. Tuttle is an amazing character, who should have been struck off for what she does!).
It’s the summer of 2000, and she experiments with all the pills, trying to find the right combination to give her the temporary oblivion she seeks. She discovers that some of the pill combos give her black-outs rather than sleep; she has some outrageous times clubbing while not knowing a dickybird about what she’s sleepwalking through. She orders all kinds of crap too. But she’s cushioned by the money.
Through all of this, she only really sees her ‘friend’ Reva, a bulimic, who stays by her through thick and thin, despite our narrator trying to get her to leave her alone. They need each other. Her awful on-off Wall St boyfriend makes occasional appearances, as does Ping Xi, an artist at the gallery she sort of worked for for a while. Apart from them, the cheerful doorman and the enigmatic Egyptians at the store where she gets her coffees who get mentioned frequently, it’s just her and Reva. The most animated she becomes is when Reva’s mother dies, and she goes upstate with her to the funeral, and then spends all the time ordering her grief-stricken ‘friend’ around and trying to get a nap!
Most of the chapters begin with her waking up:
I woke up alone on the sofa a few days later. The air smelled like stale smoke and perfume. The TV was on at low volume. My tongue was thick and gritty, like I had dirt in my mouth. […] I opened my eyes. The room was dim, the shades were down. As I pushed myself upright, lifting my head slowly off the arm of the sofa, the blood drained out of my brain like sand in an hourglass. My vision pixelated, moiréed, then blurred and womped back into focus.
While I intensely disliked the self-indulgent protagonist, I did enjoy Moshfegh’s writing. Her use of words like ‘womped’ was inspired and such choice of vocabulary paints such vivid pictures, often humorously. Many of the sentences are short and active, making it seem like the narrator can only hold one thought in her head at a time.
Of course, Moshfegh doesn’t really want us to like her protagonist – well, not until the crunch time which happens around a year later (work that out – it’s in the blurb!). I really disliked the narrator who, bucking the trope, is not unreliable in the literary sense – she’s totally reliable in telling us her story – she’s just a real cow, totally unreliable in life – and we despise her over-privileged, self-indulgent, selfish life! Yet, strangely, I found myself ‘enjoying’ the book, although I can’t see it winning the prize. It’s equally hard to give it a score though – I’ll plump for 7/10.
See what Alice thought of it at Shiny here, Rebecca here, Clare here.
Source: Library. Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Jonathan Cape, 2018) paperback, 304 pages.
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20 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize reading: #5 R&R”
Nothing about this book has made me want to read it, from its publication up to now, but I do love seeing how other people react to it – Moshfegh can definitely write!
It was such an odd book with this awful anti-heroine – but I did like the writing! 🙂
Great review, Annabel. I’m glad that you found things to ‘enjoy’ rather than feeling forced to plod on, regardless.
I feel I’m quite educated now on US drug brand-names. She tells us about every pill she pops – but it was a strangely compelling book to read!
I think I’ll take your word for it!
i’m about 72% on my kindle through this (as usual now it’s taking me forever, but that’s an eye issue rather than a book one). I do find it fascinating, but have been wondering if anything will ever happen. The writing’s brilliant, but I fear that for understanding the character I’m just too old! It felt to me like Moshfegh was playing with the idea of the tragic heroine – could you create a protagonist for whom everything seems to be perfect according to our contemporary standards – she’s beautiful, and rich and carefree – and yet everything in her life that matters is wrong. She’s in one hell of a state, thanks to her parents and the manner of their death, thanks to the soulless art world she’s been working in, thanks to whatever culture has made her feel that she can ignore the needs of others, thanks to the world at large which values all the wrong things and has made her afraid of meaning and genuine emotion. No, she’s not at all sympathetic, but I’ve found myself reacting to her mentally, like a case study, rather than viscerally, which for me has been because she just seems soooooo young. And even the psychiatrist who ought to help her just makes things much worse. Is that a comment on what our lets-get-a-drug-for-everything culture has done, perhaps? Anyway, I’m finding it interesting, and very interested to read your review! I do know just where you’re coming from!
I love your deeper, more compassionate insight Victoria! I kept forgetting she was as young as she was – she felt more like older 20s than younger to me most of the time, then she’d do something petulant and childish and you’d remember she’s still a young adult just out of uni! Very complex. Something does happen though, not what you’d necessarily think – is that teasing enough for you?
Ooh so teasing!! I still haven’t finished it – but I will. Then we absolutely must talk about the ending together. xx
Sounds like a complex one. If the irritation factor of a character is too high, the reader is *never* going to find a proper way into the book. Not one for me at all…
At first I kept going because of the dark humour in Moshfegh’s writing but it hooked me because I wanted to find out what happens to her at the end!
My comment didn’t post for some reason! This is the only shortlisted book I haven’t yet read, and I’ve no idea what I’ll make of it. Really enjoyed your review!
It’s certainly different Laura – and as an indictment on overprescribing and bad doctoring as well as the anti-heroine’s mental health, it meets the criteria. I don’t think nor hope it’ll win the Wellcome, but I hope you’ll ‘enjoy’ it!
I’m sorry we/the judges made you read this 😉 But despite your exasperation with the main character you’ve been very fair about the good and bad. I certainly don’t think it should win, but I had fun reading it.
I didn’t really mind at all – it was a surprisingly quick read – but yes, it was sort of fun too, in that sadistic way that books have when the author is brave and gives the reader an unlikeable protagonist. 😀
I felt the same about this book as you did. An intense dislike! I am still unable to understand why so many critics applauded this book and raved about it. When I found myself not enjoying it I wondered if perhaps it was my taste that was wrong, so I feel validated reading that you disliked it as well.
Thanks, and keep the great reviews coming!
Thank you. It’s always difficult to enjoy reading a book with an unlikeable protagonist. The whole popping pills business just got my goat. But strangely I did feel compelled to keep reading…
I’ve not been in any way inclined to read this book (I read her earlier novel, the name of which eludes me now, and didn’t much like it) and your review reminds me that I still don’t need to read it. 😆