I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. — Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen: A Novel
Thus opens Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, a narrative which might indicate our title character is just another girl. But Eileen is an odd young woman, obstinate and unaware in her peculiarities, and this novel’s glimpse into her strange world is at once intimate and incredibly uncomfortable, like a stranger standing too close in an elevator.
It is 1964, and Eileen’s life is bleak. Unmarried, single past her prime in a period not kind to women aged out of the dating pool, Eileen lives with her father. Dad is a former police officer with such a drinking problem, Eileen hides his shoes to keep him from bolting, blackout drunk, into the neighborhood to stir up trouble.
Eileen’s combinations of repression and disinhibition read like a roller coaster of the roles our society demands women to fill. She works at a juvenile detention center, called a boys’ home in those days, and fantasizes about one of the guards, while simultaneously fearing and trying to control her own body, its needs and its functions.
As a character study alone, Eileen is a beautiful, bizarre joy to read. But the real fun comes with the arrival of teacher Rebecca Saint John to the prison. The dazzling, poised Rebecca forms an unlikely friendship with Eileen, albeit a relationship unequal on all levels. The reader can see what Eileen is too girl-crushed to notice–what does this charming vixen want from our dowdy, awkward, dark little narrator?
The big reveal, appearing like a band-aid ripped off in a magnificent and unexpected twist, made me guffaw aloud, which I rarely do. I won’t give anything away here. This is a clever and unique read, full of strange things and strong, warped women.
- A Necessary Trauma: Ottessa Moshfegh on Eileenand Rising Above “the Shit” (gawker.com)
- Don’t Google Ottessa Moshfegh: Read Her Debut Novel, Eileen, Instead (vanityfair.com)
- “Disgust” by Ottessa Moshfegh (theparisreview.org)