Reviewed by Jean Arboleda
MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION
By Ottessa Moshfegh
304 pp. Penguin Press.
You’ll be forgiven for mistaking Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year Of Rest And Relaxation for just another self-improvement book, spouting empowering mantras and tips on living your best life. But a second glance at the cover (Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of a Young Woman in White) immediately brushes that impression away. A listless young woman sits on a chair, pointedly avoiding your gaze. She seems neither well-rested nor relaxed; lethargic comes to mind.
The novel’s unnamed narrator follows suit. She is young, beautiful, and rich. She works at a highbrow art gallery, and comes home to a plush apartment on the Upper East Side. Everything in her life is paid for by her inheritance. On the surface, her life couldn’t possibly be that bad—in fact, it looks positively enviable. And yet, we are introduced to her as she begins an extended “hibernation” with the help of an entire bodega’s worth of prescription drugs. Her life is falling apart, and she is determined to sleep it all away.
“Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts […] I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me. I was plagued by misery, anxiety, a wish to escape the prison of my mind and body.”
At first, she seems entirely detached from everything that has happened to her—she is apathy personified. She has just lost her parents—first her father, to cancer, and then her mother, to suicide—although she muses that she was never even very close to them. She is in an on-again off-again relationship with a jerk of a Wall Street banker who disrespects her, and she is at turns bemused and disgusted by her eager best friend, Reva. Her only other main source of human interaction is her quack psychiatrist Dr. Tuttle, who is more than willing to prescribe her all the painkillers, sleeping aids, and stimulants that she wants. She is scathing and unforgiving towards everything and everyone, including herself.
“Coming out of sleep was excruciating. My entire life flashed before my eyes in the worst way possible, my mind filling itself with all my lame memories, every little thing that had brought me to where I was.”
What follows is a hypnotic, dream-like journey that pulls you into the depths of her misery. Her drug-addled daze does a good job of hiding the overwhelming tide of sadness, masquerading as fatigue, that has swept over her and taken her under. It’s strange how she could be such an unlikeable character, and yet you still find yourself rooting for her. It’s a testament to Moshfegh’s brilliant writing, as she slowly peels back these flimsy exteriors to reveal the surprisingly tender heart of the novel.
At times it felt a lot like a millennial version of Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City. While McInerney’s protagonist took us on a heady designer drug-fueled trip of New York in the 80s, Moshfegh’s heroine takes the isolationist route with prescription drugs at the turn of the millennium—but both are on a misguided quest for enlightenment and freedom. Is her hibernation a form of destructive (if passive) self-indulgence, or an intentional spiritual reset from perpetual ennui? Is a year-long hibernation just an extreme form of self-care, or is it a stand against a bleak and largely indifferent universe?
In the novel’s bittersweet final act, the narrator finally comes up from rock bottom and slowly returns to the world, and it feels like your very first breath of fresh air. Moshfegh’s dark humor and acerbic wit make this a uniquely engrossing read about the true weight of alienation and loneliness, and the lengths one must go to heal from it. You won’t be able to put it down.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh will soon be available at Fully Booked stores. To reserve a copy in advance, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jeanarboleda.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]