Eileen is the debut novel of writer Ottessa Moshfegh, whose short stories have been featured in Paris Review and have won prestigious prizes. The action is set during the week leading up to Christmas in 1964, but this is far from a heartwarming holiday tale. It is dark, twisted and suspenseful. Readers who enjoyed The Dinner or The Care of Wooden Floors or Gone Girl will be delighted. We have a narrator who is seems honest, but what kind of person is she really?
Eileen, our narrator, is telling this tale some 50 years after the main event has happened. You see, Eileen abruptly left home never to return, but the mystery is why — what happened to Eileen that gave her the courage to fulfill her dream of running away and creating a new life? In 1964, she was a 24-year-old secretary at a juvenile correctional facility which she calls Moorehead, although that is not its real name. Eileen remembers herself as being “mousy” and dull, not the kind of girl who would have drawn anyone’s attention. Yet she was also a rather dark and bitter young woman. She recalls that she hated everything and was angry and unhappy.
I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s.
In 1964, Eileen lived in “X-ville” in Massachusetts with her father, an alcoholic retired cop. He’s verbally and emotionally abusive. Eileen’s sister Joanne moved out long ago, and her mother died when Eileen was 19. Even when they were all together, it was an unpleasant, dysfunctional family unit. Their house is a dump; Eileen recalls not having lunch to take to school, parents who argued and drank and showed little to no affection for their children, and Christmases that were a huge disappointment — no presents but plenty of alcohol, including for the kids. Eileen herself is a heavy drinker and possibly anorexic. She has a very negative view of her own body and its functions.
I thought everything about me was so huge and disgusting.
I had a bad habit of drumming my fists on my stomach and pinching the negligible amount of fat on my thighs. I sincerely believed that if there were less of me, I would have fewer problems.
At the correctional facility, Eileen is not close to any of her co-workers. The women in the office were,
…soured and flat and cliquish. I suspected at the time they were secretly homosexual for each other.
The young and muscular guard Randy attracts her attention. Eileen frequently fantasizes about him and even drives past his apartment to see if his motorcycle is there on the weekends. Yet, Eileen never shows her interest to Randy, nor does she try to interact with the other women, who seem completely uninterested in her as well. Instead, she practices her “death mask,” i.e., a blank look, a look of complacency that hides her inner turmoil. Eileen admits that she was friendless and lonely with a strong desire to disappear, when an educational consultant named Rebecca came to Moorehead. Rebecca was young, beautiful, intelligent and confident, and amazingly, she was drawn to Eileen. Eileen is thrilled but also on edge; she desperately wants to cultivate Rebecca as a friend but is insecure and worries about repelling her with her manners, clothes, life. Rebecca, however, seems very interested in Eileen and invites her out for drinks and eventually to her home.
The reader knows from the beginning that Rebecca is an important part of Eileen’s decision to leave X-ville, and there is a distinct sense of some dark action that is linked to Eileen’s departure even though our narrator makes it clear that since leaving, she has had a generally happy life without much regret. The reveal
at the end is shocking but believable.
Moshfegh’s characters all wear masks of some sort, and she is interested in the dark secrets people hide from the rest of the world. Just as important, Moshfegh examines the effects of hiding secrets and then of revealing them. A book group could have a lot of fun discussing Eileen and Rebecca, particularly Eileen’s attitude as she looks back on the events of her past. She seems happy, comfortable, and pleased with what she’s accomplished. Does she have a right to be? This is a short (250 pages) and quick read, and I finish my cannonball on a high note. Two thumbs up!