My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Written by Ottessa Moshfegh
Review by Julie Carpenter and Jarad Johnson
This is a book that Julie lent me to read recently, and when I heard the premise I was immediately interested, but I didn’t know what to expect. I read the blurb and wondered how you could fill an entire book writing about a woman who was sleeping. So, I cracked it open this week and I was surprised. I didn’t like any of the characters, although they are objectively hilarious (Spoiler alert: not every character has to be likeable to make a good story), but I was still hooked.
The premise is fascinating: a woman decides to sleep (hibernate might be a better word) for a year to rejuvenate her life and her outlook on it. She, from the outside at least, has everything: she’s independently wealthy, beautiful, and living in Manhattan. On the inside, she’s miserable; her parents died within a month of each other, reawakening painful memories of her relationship with them. In short, she’s fed up with her life, and wants to take a break from it (I think we can all relate to that!). She does this by taking the most expansive cocktail of prescription drugs I’ve ever seen. Ativan, Xanax, Ambien, and countless others, prescribed to her by the worst psychiatrist in the history of the profession, real or imagined. To say that she enables the character’s pill popping is an understatement.
The characters of this novel are, well, memorable. I mean that in a good way…kind of. At any rate, they’re worth talking about. As with many dark and satirical comedies, our cast is rather pathetic and flawed. A variety of mental illnesses, eating disorders and overall bad choices permeate the lot. I repeatedly found myself annoyed with these characters, and I think that was the intention. It’s refreshing in a way to see a character’s life in complete disaster. And there’s something to the idea that even people who look like they have it all together oftentimes don’t. Everyone is struggling with something. This author very cleverly reveals the flaws in all of them and allows the reader to see them at their literal worst. She doesn’t shy away from the awful and disgusting things that people do. The narrator’s friend Reva struck me as particularly sad. She struggles with bulimia, and her entire storyline, in my opinion, is a commentary on the impossible beauty standards our society places on women.
I think there are times in everyone’s life where we would’ve liked to have gone to sleep for a week and avoided all of our problems. But what this book reminds us of, is that, as painfully excruciating as it can be, the only way to live is wide awake.
I agree with Jarad’s thoughts on this book, so it’s not exactly a point-counterpoint . I will just expand on his take. For all the sadness, despair, and black comedy this book offers up, it had an oddly refreshing effect on me, although it’s one of those books I read that sort of twined itself into the circumstances of my life at the time, so maybe my take is too personal to be useful.
I read it when I was sick. I had a really bad cold, you know, the kind which makes you think you might be dying, but it’s a cold, so no one else is really giving you the sympathy you deserve? I was full of meds as I dove into this world of somnambulance, and thus I felt almost as if I was the main character, tired, sad, full of undeserved self-pity and wanting to hide from the world. I had also just moved to Atlanta; I didn’t know anyone; my life was in chaos. Even before I came down with the cold, I really just wanted to stay in bed and feel bad for myself. The illness fell on me like a punishment for the dark thoughts, then made the dark thoughts worse…let’s just say it wasn’t the highest point of my existence.
As I plunged into the book, sleeping and waking to the rhythm of my Benadryl and cough syrup habit, I too was irritated by the protagonist, her therapist, her friends and I empathized deeply with her position even as I mocked it. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that at the end of this book an odd thing happened. I wanted to be awake and alive. I wasn’t happy or dancing with joy, but I opened a window and felt the air on my skin and decided that I liked it. Just a little. It was almost as though I’d been through a year of lying in bed, as though wallowing in someone else’s despair had lifted a tiny corner of my own.
I certainly can’t promise that experience for everyone, but I will say that I found the book oddly uplifting.
Julie Carpenter is the creator of the Sacred Chickens website. She is dedicated to telling stories and making sure that indie writers and publishers have a way to be heard. She uses narrative, her own and others’, to help interpret the world. She has a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Memphis, with an emphasis in Composition Theory. She wants to bend reality one story at a time. Julie’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and will be included The New Guard. She is currently working on a novel.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!