My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh was on my reading list for a long time. Not only was I naturally drawn to the melancholy Austen-era woman on the cover, but it also got tons of great buzz both online and from my reader/writer friends. I finally got the book from the library and finished reading it a week or two ago. For a book with a lot of lead-up in my life, it seems like I’m taking almost as long to process it in the aftermath of reading it.
What I Loved
First, I have to say that I loved every minute of reading this book. It was extremely compelling and engaging. Even when I wasn’t sure I loved where it was going (which I started to have doubts about around halfway through, but which were ultimately assuaged) I always wanted to keep reading. I kept reaching for this book when I had a minute or two to spare, even if that only meant reading a couple of paragraphs.
The main character has a lot of issues and is highly flawed in many ways, but no matter how I felt about her or her choices, I still wanted to spend time with her. And that’s a hard balance to strike. Even when I didn’t like her and couldn’t relate to her, I was rooting for her and I wanted to see where her story would go. Which brings me to my next point…
The Unlikeable Narrator
This is what I have spent a lot of time processing and trying to figure out in the aftermath of finishing this book: the question of the unlikeable narrator. The question of whether or not a main character has to be likeable is a hot-button topic in fiction, particularly when the character is a woman, making it a feminist issue as much as a literary one. Women are socialized to be deferential, submissive, and to take on peace-keeping, cheerleading, and support-based roles in both society at large and our personal relationships. How many of us have been told to “smile” by a stranger? (* Watches every woman I know raise her hand *) So as a woman and as a feminist, I inherently reject the idea that we, or our characters, have to conform to these social ideas of feminine “likeability.”
However, as a reader or an audience member, I do admit that it’s hard to get into a book, movie, or TV show if I hate all the characters. Disliking the characters has often meant that I can’t root for them or that I don’t care about how their story turns out, leading me to abandon the book/TV show/movie. As both a writer and a reader/audience member, I’ve often wondered how to reconcile these two ideas.
Enter My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
This book is the unlikeable narrator done right. Part of why I’ve taken so long to process this book and write this review is that I’ve been trying to identify what it is that kept me engaged, interested, compelled by, and rooting for the narrator, even when I disliked her at many (many) points in the book.
Ultimately, I don’t think I’ve come to an exact conclusion and this question about how to write the unlikeable narrator effectively is going to be a longer process on my writing journey.
I think the key lies somewhere in the fact that the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation was authentically human. Flawed, yes, but also honest and vulnerable and yearning for something better, for her pain to end, for her life to turn around. And these are universal human experiences we can all relate to, making her “unlikeability” a part of her humanity and her vulnerability. When “unlikeability” is human and vulnerable, it becomes a universal part of the human experience, as opposed to a shallow and off-putting trait that might be able to be chalked up to lazy or two-dimensional character development.
I would highly recommend this book both as a case-study in the craft of the unlikeable narrator and as a compelling, engaging, and thought-provoking read about life as a twenty-something woman. Not only do I recommend My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but I think we need more books like it that feature complicated, human, and authentic female characters who don’t always feel compelled to smile.
PS: My friend and fellow writer Gillian Turnbull also wrote a great review of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Check it out on her blog here.