REVIEW | How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

image via Strand

image via Strand

title: How Should A Person Be? [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Sheila Heti
pages: 306
genre: fiction
published: 2012
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy from Henry Holt via
LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.

“Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on, and even if they wanted to, couldn’t take them off. Then there are those who cannot put them on. They are the ones who live their lives not just as people but as examples of people. They are destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of us can know what it means to be human.” (p.60)

Expose herself she does. And how. Part confessional, part fiction, Heti doesn’t hold anything back as she explores the title’s question: How Should a Person Be?

This novel is far more conversationally driven than action driven, which really works for the topic Heti has chosen. Things do happen (the main character, Sheila, meets her close friend, Margaux; Margaux and another artist named Sholem have an “ugly painting” contest; Sheila and Margaux go to Art Basel in Miami) but the most compelling aspect to the piece were the characters themselves, presumably based on people in Heti’s own life (Heti is friends with Canadian artist Margaux Williamson, acted with Sholem Krishtalka in Williamson’s 2006 film “Teenager Hamlet”, and co-wrote The Chairs Are Where The People Go with Misha Glouberman, and all appear as characters in the story). Part narrative, part philosophy, part transcript, part self-help guide, the narrative structure really works.

Heti is supremely gifted at conveying largely universal truth and sentiment in fresh and original terms, something all writers aspire to…and she does it with such frankness and ease! I read the first 150+ pages in one feverish sitting on a Greyhound bus ride from NYC to Baltimore, and found myself underlining passages and flagging pages far more than usual.

A few gems:

“They like me for who I am, and I would rather be liked for who I appear to be, and for who I appear to be, to be who I am.” (p. 3)

“We don’t know the effects we have on each other, but we have them.” (p. 25)

“The only one you are given is the one to put a fence around. Life is not a harvest. Just because you have an apple doesn’t mean you have an orchard. You have an apple. Put a fence around it.” (p. 300)

There was a bit of a dip toward the middle of the book; I felt like it was on a slightly different pace than the rest of the narrative. And there was an entire chapter (Chapter 14: Sheila Wanders In The Copy Shop) that’s only purpose seemed to set up a recurring line (“He was just another man who wanted to teach me something.”) and, in my opinion, could have been cut entirely. But other than that small detail, I found the book fresh, insightful, vibrant, sagacious, exploratory, original and enormously honest.

Sheila-Heti-1

Rubric rating: 8.  I am absolutely adding The Chairs Are Where The People Go and Ticknor to the list of books I want to read that will probably distract me from completing my 30-Before-30 Literary Bucket List.

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