Relationships between identity, creativity, and friendship are explored in a humorous and intelligent – if somewhat monochromatic – manner in Toronto-based Sheila Heti’s new novel. Heti, who previously produced a novel (2005’s Ticknor) and short story collection (2002’s The Middle Stories), here fictionalizes actual events and conversations from a year in the lives of her friends to forge a journey of self-discovery for her protagonist – Sheila Heti.
In the book, Sheila divorces a husband and forms a fast, intense friendship with a painter named Margaux. Female companionship is a strange experiment for both women, who heretofore related predominantly to men, despite being frustrated by their paternalism. The women’s days are spent talking about art, while Sheila avoids working on a play commissioned by a feminist theatre company. Consumed with a desire to foment beauty despite her own stalled creative output, Sheila works in a hair salon and punishes herself by taking a sadistic lover named Israel. Her relationship with Margaux ruptures when Sheila tries to use their taped conversations as source material without her friend’s prior consent.
Cleverness abounds in How Should a Person Be? Deeply concerned with the intersection of art and celebrity, the book is reverent about painters while lampooning performance artists, the commercial art world, wealthy patrons, and even the profession of clowning. This is a book of ideas packed with overt symbolism and multiple dream sequences (one of which necessitates a late-night international Skype call to Sheila’s Jungian analyst). Amidst that heady mix, Heti’s discussions of Jewish identity and sexual masochism are particularly interesting.
Although breezy and readable, the prose suffers from a consistent tone of detachment, making it difficult to engage with the simple, linear plot, and hard to relate to the nakedly ambitious but painfully insecure Sheila or the accomplished and prolific Margaux. Despite their origins in the real world, the fictional people and predicaments that populate How Should a Person Be? feel like objects in service of an intellectual thesis, lacking sufficient richness and complexity of their own.
...a self-conscious, darkly funny exploration of the strained complexities of female friendship, the makings of bad art, and the finer points of awkward sex...[Heti] celebrates the extraordinary imperfection in ordinary life. (Jackie Wong The Georgia Straight
...a portrait of the artist as a young woman, a postmodern self-help book and an autobiography of the mind. (Rebecca Wigod Vancouver Sun
...an unforgettable book: intellectually exacting, unsettling in its fragility, bodily as anything painted by Freud, experimental yet crafted as hell, and yes, very funny. (Claudia Dey National Post
...the good kind of genre muddle...How Should a Person Be? emerges as part of an entirely different genre: the realistic self-help book. You might not want to follow in Sheila's footsteps, but tagging along on her quixotic mission will be as useful as anything else you're likely to read this year. (Michael Hingston Vue
Heti flails out in all directions, employing a winsome flexibility and an underlying sadness that deflates any pretension and focuses on the big questions of life. The exuberance of youth is shot through with magic threads of wisdom. (Candace Fertile Edmonton Journal
This is a novel that abounds with [...] wisdom, arrived at in fresh and new ways. For all its inventiveness, there is an old-fashioned integrity, an attention to thought in the prose, resulting in unusual and sharp-eyed observations . . . we are treated to some truly profound ruminations on what it means to be an artist in our indifferent era. (Literary Review of Canada
From pithy quotables ('Night fell, but then, there are always holes to fall into,') to the oddly profound ('If now in some ways I drink too much, it's not that I lack a reverence for the world'), this is a novel that rewards reading, sitting with, and rereading. (Lauren Elkin Quarterly Conversation
Original, contemplative, and often tangential, this is an unorthodox compilation of colorful characters, friendship, and sex that provides an unusual answer to Heti’s question. (Publishers Weekly
Part confessional, part play, part novel, and more -- it's one wild ride. The upfront and unabashed sex makes for a voyeuristic, sometimes hilarious, read. Think HBO's Girls in book form. (Marie Claire
... what Heti’s brain and fingertips offer are expanded possibilities for what the novel can be and can become ... How Should a Person Be? makes curious and combative company. (Anakana Schofield Globe and Mail
... one of the bravest, strangest, most original novels I’ve read this year. (Christopher Boucher Boston Globe
[Sheila Heti is] a brilliant, original thinker and an engaging writer. (Chris Kraus Los Angeles Review of Books
... vital and funny ... (James Wood New Yorker
[I'm] in awe of this new Toronto writer who seems to be channeling Henry Miller one minute and Joan Didion the next. (Alan Cheuse NPR
... boldly original ... [Heti] writes cinematically, but with the cockeyed emotional realism of filmmakers like Miranda July and Lena Dunham. (Michael Schaub NPR
This is a novel that wonders if the ugly can be beautiful, if there is clarity to be found in the drifting. (Michelle Dean Slate
How Should a Person Be? reveals a talented young voice of a still inchoate generation. (Kay Hymowitz Wall Street Journal
... bound to be quoted over and over ... Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of. (David Haglund New York Times
... brilliant, forthright and sometimes very funny ... (Akiva Gottlieb The National
Sheila Heti's vaguely autobiographical new novel might make her the Joan Didion of the 'Girls' generation. (Salon
[Heti's] book has a freshness and verve that make you wonder where she will go next. (Irish Times
An engaging mashup of memoir, fiction and philosophy... It doesn't answer the question, how should a person be? But it does find an engaging new way of asking it. (Scarlett Thomas Guardian
Heti does have a wicked sense of humour and some of her one-liners are genuinely laugh out loud. (John Harding Daily Mail
... a Joycean experiment ... (Anthony Cummins Telegraph
Heti is ... capable of arresting sentences that feel utterly now... (Claire Allfree UK Metro
How Should a Person Be? is a question to be revisited by the author herself, or another writer, or many other writers - but it's also the question novels were invented to respond to. (Joanna Biggs London Review of Books
Ms. Heti's deadpan, naked voice is what makes Sheila's journey so engaging... throughout, the reader is beguiled by blunt, sly observations. It is easy to see why a book on the anxiety of celebrity has turned the author into one herself. (Economist
[Heti's] lack of self-censorship [gives] the prose an irrefutable force. (Holly Williams The Independent
... sharp, witty ... (Natasha Lehrer Jewish Chronicle Online