'My Year of Rest and Relaxation' Review: An Ugly Kind of Femininity
Ottessa Moshfegh's viral novel asks us to examine what it means to live with mental health issues in a sexualised body.
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Content warnings: graphic descriptions of prescription drug abuse, disordered eating, medical malpractice, toxic relationships, depression, and grief.
I first came across Ottessa Moshfegh's second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, written in 2018, during a bored afternoon in self-isolation while scrolling through TikTok. In the depths of the pandemic my feed had become flooded with a specific niche of content I would include in the 'sad girl aesthetic', and the #booktok videos that popped up on my page certainly fit into that category. I was intrigued by the bright pink text, the vacant gaze and exposed skin of the renaissance woman featured on the cover, and the strange title. I was expecting a satire, and though I did laugh through lots of this book, I found it to be much more than that.
The story is set in the years 2000-2001. The unnamed narrator is a young, wealthy, privileged socialite who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and should be enjoying the party lifestyle, but she is extremely depressed. She despises her best friend Reva, is bored with her job in an art gallery, and hates her life; so together with a malpracticing psychiatrist, the narrator undergoes an attempt to put herself into a prescription drug-induced sleep for an entire year, in the hopes that she will wake up as a better person.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is written in a first person narration. The writing is vulgar and bleak, filled with satire and dark humour, but it is fast paced and easy to follow. The story deals with serious mental health issues in a way that is both comedic and tragic. Using an unnamed narrator is an excellent device for the reader to get into the head of this kind of female character - a woman who is toxic, disturbed, at times disgusting, mean - but she is an extreme version of a reality that most people can understand and even at times identify with. I especially appreciated the toxic relationships the narrator has with Reva and Trevor, the remaining people in her life. She treats them terribly, and can barely stand to think of them, however they are her anchors nonetheless.
"I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you'd feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide.”
The story draws inspiration from Sylvia Plath and reacts against the caricature of Gossip Girl-style rich young socialites. The setting of the story - New York in 2000-2001 - is deliberate, calling attention to the relationship between personal and collective trauma. The reader not only knows that it’s coming, but the novel almost feels like a countdown towards this world-shattering event.
As a woman who has lived with depression and had my own months of 'rest and relaxation', the story hit home for me at many points. It's impossible to explain the strangeness of feeling like a ghost inside a body that demands nourishment and attention, but Moshfegh somehow manages to illustrate it through absurd situations and stark prose. I recently learned of the planned movie adaptation directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, produced by Margot Robbie, and I can't think of a better duo to bring this story to life than a director who favours visual derangement and a woman who's dealt with Hollywood's sexualization her whole career.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation walks on a tightrope between hilarious satire and the deepest human pain with incredible grace. The novel, rightly so, has proven wildly popular with women in their 20s and 30s who experienced their own unwitting year off during the pandemic. I think we've all had moments where we can relate to Moshfegh's unflinching portrayal of an ugly kind of femininity.