Book Review - My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Warning: Major spoilers ahead, including discussion of the ending! Please only read this review if you don't care about being spoiled, if you've already read the book, or you 100% never ever plan on reading it! My Year of Rest and Relaxation had been on my to-read list for over a year, ever since I saw my friend Amanda post about it on Instagram. I thought, "Wow, that cover/title looks interesting," Googled it, Googled the author some, realized that the premise and author seemed incredibly interesting, and added it to the long, ever-expanding list. Finally, two days ago (yep, I started reading this two days ago and finished it yesterday), it was time. I dove into the book headfirst and basically didn't emerge until I was done with it. The novel is about an unnamed, thin, beautiful, blonde, 26-year-old narrator living alone in NYC in the year 2000. She finds no joy in life and isn't the biggest fan of facing her problems (she has lost both her parents, who she never had good relationships with to begin with), so when she gets fired from her job at an art gallery (which she also didn't like because of the commercialization and bastardization of art and the snobbery of the high-end artists), she sets out to sleep as much as possible for a year. Her irresponsible psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, pretty much provides her with any pills she asks for and more, and she doesn't have to work because she's rich and has an inheritance. She has almost no contact with anyone but the men who run the bodega down the street where she gets two coffees every day, and her 'best friend' Reva, with whom she has a complicated relationship filled with resentment, jealousy, manipulation, toxicity, and a love/hate vibe.
First of all, let me just say that this book is amazing, a treat, a joy, and a gift. Ottessa Moshfegh has an incredible ability to create immersive worlds, stories, scenes and situations, and to make even the most seemingly uneventful things attention-grabbing and urgent-seeming. In many ways, it deserves 5 stars.
The writing style deserves 5 stars. As far as style goes, Moshfegh is one of my favorite writers that I've ever encountered. She is pretty lowbrow, and you won't be pulling out the dictionary trying to figure out what some giant, rare words mean. She makes things fun and fills scenes with unique colors and emotions. I love how she will go over and describe something in multiple ways to create almost a mood board; rather than just saying "it was like x" she usually says "it was like x, like y, like z, like a, like b, like c..."
The characters deserve 5 stars. I love how Moshfegh uses their little mannerisms, habits, vulnerabilities, and favorite things to really flesh them out. Some of them seem completely real, like Reva, while others are hilariously far-fetched, like Dr Tuttle, but none of them are filler characters or there for no reason. You get really, really invested in their worlds. None of them are sanitized or perfect, and yet, they are not stone cold, even the narrator. Even the narrator loves Reva deep down.
The concept deserves 5 stars. A woman who seemingly has everything, but isn't happy and decides to take a year off from life by sleeping? It's a very unique concept, which makes the book hard to resist.
And the plot deserves 5 stars UP UNTIL the very end. (Spoiler alert ahead) I thought that the book should have ended when Reva took the narrator's pills. There should have been some epic confrontation between them, or Reva should have killed herself with the pills, or Reva could have refused to give the narrator her pills back and she would have had to have the rest of her rebirth being awake and learning how to face life instead of sleeping. Another option would have been for her to do something crazy in one of her blackouts. I didn't really get the way the book actually ended. It seemed a bit rushed, and also, I didn't get why it focused so much on the narrator's behavior without explaining much how she was feeling. It told us that she woke up, tried to go downstairs, eventually did, went to the park, etc. But how was she feeling after all that sleep? What was she thinking? We knew what she was thinking and feeling the whole book, but I felt disconnected from her at the end. I was thinking, damn, I was so invested in seeing how this would end, I thought after all this it would be something huge that would blow my mind, but really she just wakes up and goes about her life and that's really it?
And then the VERY last page also baffled me. In just a half page, we find out that Reva died on 9/11, and the narrator re watches a woman jumping out of a building from the 9/11 news footage "because she is beautiful. There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake." I thought there should have been a lot more attention paid to the fact that Reva died on 9/11, to how the 'reborn' narrator felt about that and how she felt about 9/11 in general, etc. I wanted to be satisfied in the end so I sort of tried to conceive of a satisfying meaning for this. Like, I see how it could be saying that the narrator is now equipped to start her new life, which would involve diving into the unknown, and that if a woman (Reva?) could jump out of a building, then certainly the narrator could dive into the unknown in much less dire circumstances. I just don't know if this half-page ending, nor the book leading up to it, really properly pays respects to the victims of 9/11. I also get how Moshfegh was critiquing the news and the way things are portrayed throughout the book, and that hinted at another theme of how 9/11 was portrayed on the news, but we didn't get to see much of 9/11 on the news in the novel, because 9/11 was half a page. I don't know, it really baffled me, and I felt something was really rushed there in the end. I mean, we never even found out what Reva did on Infermiterol. I have to say, I was having a blast reading the book, but with that ending, a lot of it felt sort of pointless. Well, I guess 'pointless' is a strong word. It was far from pointless; it's a great book. But read it and you'll see what I mean.
I'll also add that throughout the book, there was some racial stereotyping that happened (perhaps made slightly less problematic for me by the fact that Moshfegh is brown and Jewish herself; yes, slightly less problematic, but not entirely unproblematic), as well as the narrator referring to an autistic child as retarded, and what seemed like some stigmatizing of the mental health care profession, namely prescribing psychiatric medication. I get that psychiatric medications aren't perfect but for some people it is the right decision. It doesn't mean that they're brainwashed, corrupt, or fake for choosing that, nor is every psychiatrist. But maybe Dr Tuttle was just a plot device to allow the narrator to get drugs. Either way, I have to admit that she WAS funny.
So yeah, I have to take off a star because of the ending and the things that kind of offended me, but over all, it truly was a great book. As far as writing style goes, it was perhaps the best and most immersive book I've ever read. So I'd still recommend it, but be warned that the ending may not satisfy you. Hey, at the end of the day, it's still making me think, feel and start conversations with myself and others, and I was certainly able to get lost in it. All of this being said, I can't wait to read her other books. I conclude with a 4 out of 5 star rating.