My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a review

Whoopi Goldberg, gross medical malpractice, and even terrorist attacks. What on Earth could these things possibly have in common? The answer is that they are all aspects of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

The thing about stories is that they usually have main characters that do things. Or main characters that want things. Not this one. Not really, at least. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is about exactly that, a woman who tries to sleep herself through an entire year. In order to achieve the results she wants, she finds an inept psychiatrist that prescribes her every drug under the sun in order to combat the “insomnia” that the narrator lies about. For some months she is able to persist on only bodega coffee, animal crackers, Whoopi Goldberg movies, her inheritance, and of course very heavy medication.

Occasionally, her former roommate from college and “best friend,” Reva, drops in to check on how she is doing. Don’t let the label of “best friend” fool you into thinking that our narrator likes Reva, or really even tolerates her, because she doesn’t. Her dislike is completely justified, though, as Reva is always talking about trite and trivial things, such as her eating disorder, her sexually exploitative boss, and her dying mother. 

I can’t make it very far into this review without acknowledging that the main character is a disgusting, self absorbed individual. That is the very crux of the book. After all, why would a thin, gorgeous, wealthy woman from New York be a good person? She is constantly judging everyone around her and brushing off Reva and “whatever garbage she [is] feeling.” You could probably count the times that she’s been nice to Reva on one, single hand. Something that could be interpreted as kindness, like the way that the main character attends Reva’s mom’s funeral, quickly becomes much less sweet when we know that she only went because she had begun going on three day long blackouts after experimenting with the fictional drug, “Infermiterol.” She certainly acts nicer than usual, expressing her condolences, but even still, her remarks have the biting edge of apathy. Reva goes on being dismissed. 

One day Reva comes to the narrator’s apartment with the news that her boss doesn’t want anything to do with her anymore, and that he was giving her a promotion just to get her away. Reva gets moved to another building entirely. I think this is a better time than any to let you all know that this book is set in 2001. The characters live in New York. What notable buildings do you think that Reva was transferred to? Yes, those ones. Narrator continues to half-heartedly respond, and Reva attempts to cheer herself up saying “I’ve always wanted to work in the World Trade Center.” At this point in the narrative, it sinks in, the big question. Is this book leading up to the 9/11 attacks? Yes, it is, and I will get to that in a bit.

After doing all sorts of things while blacked out on “Infermiterol,” like flirting with strangers online, and then eventually doing things outside of the home, e.g. attending a funeral, the protagonist comes to the conclusion that all she needs is to be locked inside with heavy restrictions. For the remainder of her year (of rest and relaxation!) this works; she gets someone she knew from her old job to lock her in her apartment and bring her food every three days. After completing her year of rest (and relaxation) we see our main character sitting on park benches and feeding animals to show her very clear and obvious transformation for the better.

The book is not over though– how could it be? 9/11 hasn’t even happened yet. 9/11 only gets a page long chapter at the very end, which surprised me because it felt like the whole book was leading up to it. The last line touches on some “deep” ideas about how someone like the protagonist could be alive for a whole year and barely awake while someone like Reva could be about to die and wide awake.

This book was a snooze, pun intended. It was my own fault for thinking that a book about medical hibernation would be more interesting, but in my defense, critics as well as readers online were raving about it. My biggest personal gripe is the unlikability of the main character. I understand that good characters don’t always mean nice characters, and I also understand the commentary that was made, like how a wealthy, privileged woman could plausibly sleep for a year and reap the benefits of it. You are not supposed to relate to or like the main character, but in my humble opinion when a character is so wildly unredeemable and so unbelievably unmotivated to do anything, it doesn’t make for an enjoyable read.  In fact, reading the book was a bit of a nightmare! Another pun intended and landed. I was not rooting for the main character, and quite frankly neither was she. The main character of the book might as well have been the medication. Maybe if you are an Ottessa Moshfegh fan, you’re thinking “That’s the whole point!” All I have to say is that just because a book has a point doesn’t make for a particularly fun read.

At the end of the day, I didn’t hate My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I just didn’t love it the way that I was told I would. Critics and online circles preached to me about how the book was a crazy story about an unhinged woman, when really it was a relatively tame story about an admittedly still unhinged woman. I felt like I had to like the story. I felt like I had to look at all of the boring and obnoxious parts of the narrative and act like I loved it for the very reasons that it annoyed me so deeply. Going into the book, I expected this book to be a solid 10/10, but upon reading, I think it was more of a 6/10. I probably would not recommend this book, but I can’t deny that it has found a strong audience.