Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh – Review

New York

Eileen is a 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. The novel is a memoir of the past, retelling Eileen’s last week in a freezing, miserable Massachusetts town, in the 1960s. It also functions as a rich and disturbing character study.

Eileen

Eileen

“That is what I imagined life to be—one long sentence of waiting out the clock.”

Like Pizza GirlEileen features an unlikeable protagonist. Unlike Pizza Girl, you see exactly why Eileen is the way she is. The text paints a dark and gloomy portrait of a grim and abusive household. She is bullied into an eating disorder as a child and as an adult suffers from severe body dysmorphia. She thinks of herself as fat, heavy, clumpy, the way many girls feel when puberty hits, but admits in a few asides that she is dangerously thin (100lb). After her mother dies, she becomes a caretaker for her ungrateful alcoholic father. Her sister Joanie is the favourite; a girl who moved out at a young age, with an implication that something unsavoury was going on. Eileen is a book permeated with dread; there is a palpable sense that something terrible is about to happen.

Her self loathing and co-dependence are pronounced and reinforced by her community. Everyone sees her father as her responsibility, prioritising his pride over Eileen’s welfare. She starves herself; gulps down vermouth at work; wears her dead mother’s clothes, which are ill-fitting and out of date. She works at a boy’s prison and is indifferent to the casual brutality and racism within the walls.

Rebecca

“Idealism without consequences is the pathetic dream of every spoiled brat”. p-315

She becomes dazzled by her new colleague Rebecca, a glamorous educational professional who claims to have studied at Harvard. Eileen never questions why a beautiful Harvard educated professional would want to live or work in a backwater one bar town, and quickly succumbs to the woman’s charm. Rebecca is a stylish, messy, proudly childfree, but ultimately a shallow ‘new woman’ who appears to have moved to Nowheresville to ‘save’ the local populace.

Towards the end of the book Rebecca drags Eileen into a criminal yet well meaning piece of vigilantism, and bails at the moment of truth. The charismatic rich girl who ruins the life of her working class friend for larks is hardly a new trope. What I like about how it is handled in this book is that this ‘ruination’ is ultimately Eileen’s salvation, and she entertains few illusions about the situation. She rapidly realises that Rebecca will not be joining her on her escape to New York; there is little Affinity style self delusion.

Similarities with Pizza Girl

“…the face I wore at work, my death mask.”

Eileen and Pizza Girl are surprisingly similar books. Two unlikeable protagonists, both with an alcoholic father, a drinking problem, a crush on a dazzling, unavailable (and ultimately disappointing) woman, and access to a weapon. Both women stalk their crushes, and are in denial, Jane of her pregnancy, Eileen of her eating disorder. Eileen lacks Jane’s support network – she doesn’t have a mother, a boyfriend; she doesn’t have a single friend. But the two women share a numb self hatred, an anger, a cold indifference to those around them. I found Eileen more repulsive than Jane, but also more sympathetic. I think because the narrative really explores what Eileen goes through at the hands of her family. You experience through her eyes the degradation and trauma involved in caring for a man who is drinking himself to death – a man who despises her, is ungrateful and hateful. It makes you confront what being forced into this sort of caring role does to the people (usually women) involved.

In the End

New York

I enjoyed this portrait of a loathsome, self destructive but ultimately sympathetic woman. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone – it’s repugnant in places, and deeply uncomfortable. And I don’t mean that in the way a masterpiece like Beloved is ‘uncomfortable’; it doesn’t force you to examine deeply held prejudices or grow as a person exactly. It just involves difficult topics, and could be a tough read, especially for people with certain traumatic experiences in their past. So a cautious 4/5, with a recommendation to be careful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.