Review: How Should A Person Be?



Title: How Should A Person Be?

Author: Sheila Heti

Genre: Literary

Publisher: Henry Holt

Length: 306 pages

Library: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh–East Liberty

Challenge: Peek-A-Book 2013 Women Challenge

Summary: An author struggles to finish her play and figure out what her role is in the grand scheme of things, much to the amusement and chagrin of her friends.


This meta-fictional wonder follows a fictional version of Heti as she grapples with an unfinished play. The action largely takes place inside the playwright’s head, and she thinks a hell of a lot. This is not a complaint; it’s actually somewhat refreshing, in an era where, it seems, most people think far too little; fictional Sheila is there to figure it out for us, or to help us figure it out, or to give us a model of how it can be done. Whatever. It works.

What makes it work is that it’s uncensored and refreshingly honest. The protagonist really is stuck, and doesn’t want to be stuck, but doesn’t have the first clue about how to get unstuck. So she tries different things. Working at a hair salon. Kinky sex. Hanging out with her best friend, Margaux. Occasionally, actually writing. The only problem is that Sheila is so engrossed in her own artistic paralysis that she doesn’t always realize when she’s being hurtful or unkind, especially to Margaux. One one level, the novel is about the artistic struggle; on another, it’s a book about how to have a friend and to be a friend, something none of us gets an instruction manual for, and can definitely relate to as Sheila wakes up to her blunders and tries to make amends. The solution–which came to me as a delightful surprise, but may very well be immediately apparent to more literary minds than mine–brings the novel to a neat close, a deft little package wrapped up with clever ribbon, as if to say, “See? I figured it out. Go thou, and do likewise.”

Recommended for: Writers, artists, other creative types. People who like meta-fiction. People who like to think and then talk about the thought process, possibly for hours and hours. Literary sophisticates who are still grounded enough to have a sense of humor. Anybody who smiles at the phrase “ugly painting contest.”

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