Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Good Grief, Eileen

Have you ever read a book that you couldn't put down but you couldn't recommend? I kind of feel that way about Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. It's not that I felt it was a waste of time (to obtain that miserable feeling, read “The Girl on the Train”). Maybe it's closer to the way I felt about “Gone Girl” – these people are all despicable but I can't stop reading. But Eileen isn't despicable, just depressing.

Eileen Dunlop, 23 year old resident of a small coastal Massachusetts town she calls X-ville, is planning to escape from it all – her alcoholic father, her dead-end job at a correctional facility for adolescent boys, her marginal existence – for a new life in New York. And since she narrates from a remove of fifty years, we know she made it. We even know as she begins the story – a week before Christmas – that by Christmas Day she will be gone. And I was certainly rooting for her. But as she piled on detail after detail about her life – her father's abusive insults, her disgust with her own body, her sad workplace crush on a prison guard– I couldn't imagine how she would gain the strength to succeed.  Every time I thought her self-esteem couldn't get any lower, it did.

But then the glamorous and mysterious Rebecca comes to work at the facility, and forms an instant bond with Eileen. Eileen sees her as an escape route, and in an unexpected and shocking way she is. But by that time I was exhausted. Did I really need to endure that much misery to get to a semi-happy ending?

I have to admire Moshfegh’s ability to make a character and story so compelling that I couldn't stop reading. And amazingly I did come to care about what happened to Eileen – as opposed to that stupid girl on the train. But be warned – it's the most disturbing Christmas story you'll ever read.

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