Friday, June 21, 2013

book review: How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

The backstory: How Should a Person Be? was longlisted for the 2013 Orange Women's Prize for Fiction.

The basics: This novel features a narrator named Sheila Heti. Heti uses some actual conversations with friends in this genre-defying "novel of life." The character Sheila seeks answers to the titular question "how should a person be?"

My thoughts: Going into How Should a Person Be?, I was excited. I have a fondness for experimental novels. I may not always love them, but I do enjoy exploring new and creative approaches to literature. As I read, I was as enraptured trying to figure out what Heti (the author) was doing as what Sheila (the character) was saying. There's a sense of late night, wine-fueled conversations about deep things in the early pages of this novel. That will likely either intrigue you or have you running for the hills, but I couldn't get enough of it. As Sheila struggles with her identity, to some extent, but really herself,  that identity is caught up in her work:
"I had spent so much time trying to make the play I was writing--and my life, my self--into an object of beauty. It was exhausting and all that I knew."
This notion particularly stands out to me in this novel, because How Should a Person Be? is an exercise in the artist being part of the work. Where do the writer and character merge and overlap? This exploration was riveting, but soon it became clear there wasn't enough plot. The setup was lovely, but the book's second half felt more forced and stilted. I longed for more conversations and scenes like this one from earlier in the novel:
"One good thing about being a woman is we haven't too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be. For the men, it's pretty clear. That's the reason you see them trying to talk themselves up all the time. 
Favorite passage:  "I will give up pot because it makes me paranoid. But I will stay close to God because he makes me paranoid."

The verdict: While I adore Heti's writing and love the idea of this book, the second half isn't as strong as the first half. As a whole, it's a disappointment, but it's certainly a book I'm glad I read. The moments of brilliance are definitely worth sifting through the rest.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: June 19, 2012 (it comes out in paperback Tuesday)
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy How Should a Person Be? from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Sheila Heti's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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  1. This sounds like it's worth reading! Thanks for the review!

  2. I loved/hated this book, but I thinks im going to go see the author speak next week!

  3. I definitely want to give this a try. I love when there are moments of genius to discover!


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