Eileen is the story of a young woman, with quite odd and disturbing habits, who works in a boys correctional facility. When Rebecca, the new educational director, starts working at the jail, Eileen is fascinated by her sophistication and otherworldliness. Eileen fixates on Rebecca, but as she gets deeper into her obsession, she is forced to realize new things about herself and the life that has eluded her in her hometown. Her friendship with Rebecca leads her to change her life, though not in a way one might expect.
I think that many people are put off by Eileen’s character. Moshfegh writes Eileen as a lonely, troubled young woman who lives with her father in a house that is eternally covered in filth. While this isn’t the prettiest scene to read about, I think it is important to peek into the lives of those who live differently than we do, and whose stories we may rather ignore (just as the townspeople ignore Eileen). Eileen’s habits did gross me out at times, but I enjoyed the detail and thought Moshfegh put into her character. Eileen always seems believable and utterly real, confronting us with a startling picture of a young woman who is the opposite of the stereotypically attractive, successful, and put-together young woman.
Besides superb characterization and detail, Moshfegh brings up important themes regarding our expectations of young women, children, crime and punishment. The death mask that Eileen often wears is the opposite of the smile expected of women, challenging the reader to contemplate what is expected of young women, and how we represent ourselves, in and out of the workplace. The boys prison where Eileen works shows the harsh realities of juvenile correction facilities, and the extreme punishments and routines somehow meant to help young boys learn from their mistakes. And while this book takes place in 1964, I am sure many of these outdated practices are still in use today, prompting thought on prison reform. Many other thought-provoking topics are brought up, especially towards the end of the novel, making the read more interesting and engaging as it goes along.
This book is thoroughly engaging, gross at times, but also a beautiful examination of humanity and the process of growing up. Moshfegh’s writing is just amazing and I can’t wait to read her new short story collection!