EILEEN by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press, 2015
I didn’t love this quite as much as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but I think I can confidently call myself an Ottessa Moshfegh fan now. She excels at crafting female characters who are sympathetic enough to warrant investment but abhorrent enough to shatter the conception that even the most contentious of antiheroines must above all else be likable. There’s nothing sexy or pleasant or charming about our titular Eileen, and it’s a breath of fresh air. The novel follows Eileen Dunlop, a 24-year-old friendless young woman living in rural Massachusetts in the 1960s, working at a boys’ prison she calls Moorehead by day and caring for her cruel alcoholic father by night. She daydreams of escaping the monotony of her everyday existence, until one day the alluring Rebecca takes a position as a counselor at Moorehead and Eileen finds herself with a new fixation.
In contrast to the richly textured Eileen, her foil Rebecca is drawn rather simply, but with precision. She’s beautiful and she wears all the right clothes and says all the right things. Eileen doesn’t allow herself to consider that Rebecca is anything less than perfect or that her intentions are anything less than noble, but as these events are being narrated to us by a much older Eileen, the reader is painfully aware that certain limitations in young-Eileen’s perspective are going to lead inexorably to a tragic conclusion. But we also know that both Eileen and Rebecca make it out alive, so the question becomes how their dynamic is able to culminate in catastrophe that spares them both.
Moshfegh rises to the challenge, as the whole thing slowly builds toward a chilling and mesmerizing climax, as dark as it is unexpected. My only hangup with this novel is the repetition in its descriptions of Eileen’s home life. Maybe it’s meant to reflect the tedium that Eileen herself feels, or maybe it’s an indication that this would have worked better as a short story, as others have suggested. But still, I really enjoyed this, as both a character study and a commentary on the bizarre and contradictory ways women are socialized to view themselves and others. This is better read as a character-driven literary novel than a thriller, but even so, I was thrilled by it.