Writer Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen has been something of a minor blockbuster in the book world over the past year, with reviewers hailing her book as “satisfyingly unsettling,” or “perverse, squalid, and sinister.”
This left me hoping for a psychological thriller, or at least a gripping read. What I got instead was a banal melodrama.
The plot is given to us through a frame narrative of a much-older Eileen recounting her last fateful week in the town where she grew up. It’s heavily suggested that this 20-something version of Eileen is suffering from depression, anorexia, anxiety, all while having to care for her emotionally and verbally abusive father — a retired police officer whose retirement was accelerated by his drinking habit. Eileen’s misery is further compounded by her job as an administrator in a juvenile detention facility for criminal boys.
The first half — or possibly even two-thirds — of the book is spent establishing just how miserable and meek Eileen is. She has an unrequited crush on a security guard at the prison and it’s clear that this guard — Randy — probably hasn’t spoken a full sentence to her in the whole time they’ve worked together. But she mostly likes to gaze at his body when he isn’t looking, and then drive past his house on the weekends. She herself has developed a drinking problem, often going straight from work to the liquor store, and then passing out in a pool of her own vomit in her car or bed.
This depressing merry-go-round continues for about 150 pages, all while teasing the upcoming appearance of a character named Rebecca who will change the course of Eileen’s life. Rebecca does eventually show up, an embodiment of a bad film noir stereotype — tall, thin, redheaded, elegant, and charming. Rebecca’s main allure is that she actually seems to notice Eileen, and even befriends her. And until “the twist,” that’s about all that happens. Eileen continues to mope, drink, be abused, but also occasionally spends time with the charming Rebecca who seems too good to be true.
About 7/8ths of the way through the book we finally get our non-twist: a plot development that explains Eileen’s departure from her hometown (which she cryptically refers to as X-ville), but unfortunately it’s one that happens so late in the story that the miserable weight of Eileen’s life has already bogged the reader down, if not bored them to tears.
This is a more critical review than I wanted to give. Throughout my reading, I kept wanting to like it more, and to understand why it was being nominated for major prizes, like the Man Booker. But while it has interesting things to say about women’s relationships with their bodies, particularly in their early 20s, along with the nature of depression and loneliness and anxiety, in the end it just felt like a jumbled let-down.
If I’ve got it all wrong, feel free to yell at me in the comments below.