A Feminine Sensibility: Two Books on Young Women

Both jacketed in pink, Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot” and Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” offer different visions of a young woman’s experience.

Sincere and idyllic, “The Idiot” follows Harvard freshman Selin meandering through her first year of college and her summer after. In tonal contrast, Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is narrated by an acerbic, eye-rolling protagonist. With the help of her batty therapist’s prescriptions, the novel’s narrator attempts to sleep for an entire year.

The back cover of “The Idiot” includes a perplexing review: GQ has called the novel “easily the funniest book [they’ve] read this year”. For the life of me, I could not understand this review. Selin’s voice is so clear and charmingly distinct, the voice of an intelligent young woman– I thought, what could be so funny about this novel, the comings-and-goings of a normal girl?

Selin, obsessed with linguistic wordplay and interested in an older graduate student, is singular in her thoughts. In contrast to her magnetic friend Svetlana “who never sees anything as an isolated event”, Selin thinks “everything seems like so much like an individual case”. Every detail is noteworthy, everyone she sees has a strange way about them. Ivan, an older Mathematics student catches her attention. And because the year is 1995, email is new. She and Ivan flirt through email as if playing chess.

‘The Idiot’ author Elif Batuman. Photo by Gary Leonard.

When Selin follows Ivan to Hungary, she is unsure of their relationship. What she learns in Hungary is less about Ivan and much more about herself. Growing up and living happens quickly and stealthily. Nothing terribly dramatic happens, except for the quiet disintegration of Selin’s initial perceptions. Because I am Selin’s age, I did not realize that “The Idiot” was about youth and the folly of youth. As intelligent as Selin is, what escapes her awareness is as telling as what she does observe.

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” replaces the innocence of the late teens’ with a twenty-something jadedness. The year is 2000 now and the unnamed narrator — Ivy League-educated, rich, thin, and pretty — medicates herself into a year-long slumber. She hates her art gallery job and decides, on a whim, to quit her job, live off her inheritance, and abandon her body. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, blindly dispenses unhelpful advice and pills. Her unkempt manner horrifies everyone, from Egyptian bodega clerks to her best frenemy, Reva. Readers are witness to her drugged excursions — she buys VHS tapes from thrift stores, wanders around Manhattan, and rides the Long Island Rail Road Train.

Her jadedness is a response to her emotional troubles. An orphan, she can’t even begin to process the loss of her uncaring parents. Her only response is to bubble wrap herself in a state of half-consciousness. Moshfegh focuses on her character’s insistence upon rebellion, a rebellion against her suffocating apathy. The intensity of her commitment to sleep is truly striking.

Moshfegh’s writing examines the vileness of femininity. Even the cover of the book makes a statement — neon pink lines the edge of the cover, a tribute to a femininity that attacks the senses. The heroine’s depreciation is unsightly in every way. When not sleeping, her personality is hostile. Her beautiful, thin body wastes away. Her rebellion is against feeling, against every vestige of modern femininity.

‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ author Otessa Moshfegh. Photo by Molly Matalon.

Yet, even when sleeping, she can’t escape the pernicious femininity peddled by Victoria’s Secret. Under the influence of Infermiterol and Silencior, the narrator orders lingerie and jeans. Unconscious, she grooms and primps. She still takes pride in her blondeness, in her hotness. If the novel were to strike any singular tone, disgust would be most fitting.

Reading these novels back-to-back made for an interesting primer on the workings of modern young women. Although set at the turn of the millennium, each woman grapples with the experience of coming-of-age in a way that feels current. The experience of being a certain young woman is just like any experience. It is mundane and absurd, bright and dark.

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